A man stands next to a brick building holding a stake-driving tool. City trees and a street are in the background behind him.
GROWING ROOTS After graduating from the Branches to Chances program, Bob Harris was hired full-time by the Delaware Center for Horticulture to help train new program participants. © Jordan Bush

Stories in Delaware

The Social Impact of Community Conservation in Wilmington

A TNC and workforce development program partnership provides job experience and skills—and helps make a positive impact on local communities.

Editor’s Note: This article was written before the outbreak of COVID-19. The Delaware Center for Horticulture’s Branches to Chances program was paused in the spring of 2020, but the program will be returning in 2021 with COVID-19 health and safety protocols in place for trainees and staff. 

It’s graduation day at the Delaware Center for Horticulture (DCH), which means Bob Harris is crying.

“I can’t help it. Somebody always cries and that makes me cry.”

Harris has plenty of reasons to feel emotional. He spent the last 10 weeks mentoring the graduates in his role as Employee Training Specialist for the center’s Branches to Chances Return to Work program. The eight participants started the program underemployed, unemployed or formerly incarcerated, but all of them are graduating with new employable skills and on-the-job horticulture and landscaping experience.

I look out, and I see hope. I see individuals with their chests pushed out in pride.

Employee Training Specialist, Delaware Center for Horticulture

“I look out, and I see hope. I see individuals with their chests pushed out in pride. I see their parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers out in the audience, all dressed up and looking nice,” said Harris. “They feel proud. Their families are proud. It’s really a stepping stone when their lives have been full of stumbling blocks.”

The moment is especially poignant for Harris, who completed the Branches to Chances program himself 10 years ago. He was on work release when he applied, accepted and excelled at the program. DCH offered him a job immediately after graduating.

“We’re doing our part to reduce recidivism. We’re doing our part to expose people to new opportunities,” said Harris. “And every year, we add something to the program that makes it a little bit better.”

Vikram Krishnamurthy and Maria Dziembowska stand in a vacant lot that has been newly planted with trees.
NEW LIFE Vikram Krishnamurthy, executive director of the Delaware Center for Horticulture, and Maria Dziembowska, Delaware director of conservation for TNC, in Wilmington’s West City Center neighborhood. Working with Wilmington Neighborhood Conservancy Land Bank, they're bringing new life to vacant lots. © Jordan Bush

Community-Based Conservation Initiatives

One of the newer additions to Branches to Chances is a partnership between DCH and The Nature Conservancy. The organizations share a commitment to improving human and ecological health in Wilmington and Delaware’s other urban centers. 

TNC joins a broad coalition of community partners that DCH has coalesced throughout its 43 years of operation. These deep local roots allow TNC to engage genuinely in community-based conservation initiatives, like Branches to Chances, while implementing broader urban conservation strategies.

“We’ve always been a grassroots, community-based organization, and we’re all about making a positive impact on the hyperlocal, block-by-block level,” said Vikram Krishnamurthy, DCH executive director. “We appreciate the big picture perspective TNC brings to this work. That’s the great thing about this partnership. We’re both bringing value to a project that would have been unachievable for each on our own.”  

Currently, TNC and DCH are working with Wilmington Neighborhood Conservancy Land Bank to bring new life to vacant lots in Wilmington’s West City Center neighborhood. To date, they have repurposed seven neglected lots as open, inviting green spaces. Branches to Chances trainees clean up trash, remove invasive species, install fencing and plant trees to transform the spaces into accessible community spaces, all while learning landscaping skills and botany basics. 

“While the initial greening intervention may have relatively small ecological benefits, the social impact of this work is very meaningful,” said Maria Dziembowska, the director of conservation for TNC's Delaware chapter.

We appreciate the big picture perspective that TNC brings to this work. That’s the great thing about this partnership. We’re both bringing value to a project that would have been unachievable for each on our own.

Vikram Krishnamurthy Executive Director, Delaware Center for Horticulture
Stephen Smith pauses during his work day to pose with a smile in front of his green landscaping truck.
Branches to Chances Stephen Smith, a 2019 Branches to Chances graduate, utilized the skills he learned in the Return to Work program by working for a local landscaping company. Since this photo was taken, Stephen has opened his own landscaping business. © Jordan Bush

Social impact is a meaningful and increasingly integral element of conservation efforts both in and outside cities.

“Scientific research shows a strong correlation between greening efforts and increased feelings of social cohesion and perceptions of safety. These projects also open the door to community conversations about the wide variety of benefits trees and green space can bring to a community, from improved air quality, to increased stormwater absorption and even wildlife value,” says Dziembowska.

As a next step, TNC and partners are planning a comprehensive mapping project to identify priority areas for future greening interventions in the city. They hope the research will inform where private and public investments will bring the biggest social, economic and environmental benefits.

“Clean and green projects open up people’s minds to what these spaces can be,” says Krishnamurthy. “I think one of our next steps with The Nature Conservancy could be asking residents about their vision for these spaces in the long term.”

Clean and green projects open up people’s minds to what these spaces can be.

Vikram Krishnamurthy Executive Director, Delaware Center for Horticulture
Three men and a woman having a conversation stand together next to a vacant lot that is being cleared for tree planting.
MEANINGFUL RESULTS Branches to Chances combines classroom training and hands-on work experience supervised by industry experts that equip participants to secure meaningful employment. © Jordan Bush

Urban Forestry Training

Beyond vacant land restorations, Branches to Chances has historically focused on community gardens, public landscaping and tree care projects. TNC is supporting their existing curriculum by providing participants with urban forestry training seminars from staff experts.

Krishnamurthy says a goal for all program participants, aside from developing employable skills, is for them to feel proud of the positive impact they are making in their community.

“My initial exposure to DCH was when the main focus was on planting trees. During that eight-week program period, we planted about 200 trees throughout the city,” says Harris.  “I ride through the city now, and there are not too many neighborhoods in Wilmington where I haven’t planted at least two trees. To see that they are still living after 10 years, and to see the resiliency of certain trees that we planted where the soil was just terrible—it’s very, very fulfilling.”

View across the river of the Wilmington, DE skyline. The foreground is filled with low shrubs and bushes.
Wilmington From a Distance View of the Wilmington, DE riverfront. © Jordan Bush Photography

A Path Forward: TNC’s Urban Conservation Programs in Wilmington and Philadelphia

For decades, cities across the country have been experimenting with solutions to legacy problems faced by many urban communities—problems rooted in the nation’s history of racial discrimination in housing and urban planning. 

For the past few years, The Nature Conservancy has worked with community-based organizations in Wilmington and Philadelphia to support two separate workforce development programs that combine environmental equity with jobs training. Sharing experiences, lessons, science and best practices both locally and globally is what sets TNC apart.

Read the companion article, More Than a Job: Creating a Better Future in Philadelphiaabout a similar partnership in the City of Brotherly Love.

Now that TNC's conservation efforts in Wilmington and Philadelphia and being integrated into one program, TNC stands to have a greater regional conservation impact, embedding both cities into the broader landscape of the lower Delaware River.

As the nation works to rebuild the global economy, the recovery process must include opportunities not only to resume our old way of life, but also to rebuild businesses, industries and jobs in ways that enhance equity, strengthen resilience and support a healthy environment. Economic recovery and environmental action must go hand-in-hand. Nature’s future is our future.