Three men plant a large tree in a narrow green space at the edge of a residential community.
Witness Trees Workers plant trees in Baltimore's Turner Station neighborhood. The community-led greenspace aims to strengthen climate resiliency, honor African American cultural heritage. © Matt Kane / TNC

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Witness Trees Project Begins in Baltimore’s Turner Station Neighborhood with Tree Planting and Public Art Installation

Project’s first phase creates new community-led greenspace designed to strengthen climate resiliency and honor African American cultural heritage.

One hundred and forty trees and nine story posts were planted on 2.5 acres of open space at Lyon Homes/Henrietta Lacks Village in the Turner Station neighborhood this week, which marked the completion of the first phase of the Witness Trees project. 

The multi-year project aims to make the community more resilient against climate change, provide leadership development opportunities for Turner Station residents and highlight community stories about Turner Station’s past, present and future. Partners on the project include the Turner Station Conservation Teams, Baltimore County, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Greater Baltimore Wilderness Coalition (GBWC), Lyon Homes/Henrietta Lacks Village, and Union Baptist Church of Turner Station.

Turner Station is a low-lying, historically African American community in Baltimore that was founded during segregation in the 1880s and has been home to many notable figures, including Henrietta Lacks. In 2006, long-time community members founded the Turner Station Conservation Teams (TSCT), a non-profit organization committed to preserving and restoring the community’s health and heritage.

“The trees we plant here will do what they do best—combat climate change, add beauty, clean the air, cool streets and homes and hopefully stand for generations to come,” said TSCT Vice-President Michael Thompson. “These trees will help preserve our environmental and public health as well as our rich history. With public art and signage created from residents’ storytelling sessions that will educate and inspire people, the trees will stand as witnesses to maintain our legacy.” 

The public art and trees installed and planted this week are a culmination of a series of design workshops held with community members over the summer that were facilitated by Baltimore-based and woman-owned landscape architecture firm EnviroCollab and art/design firm WGF Studio

The project represents an investment of more than $250,000 by project partners, including $95,000 for tree planting invested by the Baltimore County Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability from a Chesapeake Bay Trust grant that is part of a statewide 5 Million Trees for Maryland initiative. Additional funding for the project was provided by The France Merrick Foundation, Hoffberger Family Philanthropies, the Colorado State University Salazar Center for North American Conservation’s Thriving Cities Challenge and the Commission for Environmental Cooperation.

The 140 new trees will clean the air, absorb water and offer comfortable gathering spaces for community members. The canopy trees are a mix of native, climate-adaptive species including sycamore, elm, maple and several species of oak. Additional understory species include paw paw, serviceberry, persimmon and magnolia. 

The nine story posts highlight life in Turner Station as quoted by community residents during the project’s oral history documentation process that was part of the design workshop series. The quotes reflect themes of resilience, community, faith and culture in Turner Station and will link to the community members’ video interviews via QR codes. 

A dedication ceremony was held at the site on Friday, November 18, where speakers included Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., TSCT’s Michael Johnson, TNC’s Baltimore Community Project Manager Andrea van Wyk, Greater Baltimore Wilderness Coalition’s Ashley Traut, Lyon Homes’ Chris Woods and the Rev. W. Eric Johnson from the Union Baptist Church of Turner Station.

“We celebrate Turner Station as one of our most historic communities and look forward to the space being created, which will feature more than 100 new trees along with original, local artwork reflecting the character of the neighborhood, as a destination for people to reflect and interact with nature for years to come,” said Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski. “I thank all of our partners for their collaboration on this project and look forward to continuing our work on a variety of other initiatives in the Turner Station community moving forward."

“The Greater Baltimore Wilderness Coalition is truly thrilled to be partnering with Turner Station on this inaugural planting and the community-led greening efforts to come,” said GBWC Senior Advisor Ashley Traut. “Our vision is for people and nature to thrive together in every community across central Maryland.”

Phase one of the Witness Trees project also includes tree planting and three story benches at the Union Baptist Church of Turner Station in an amphitheater-inspired configuration to honor the site of the historic Anthony Theater. Additional funds are currently being raised to add a mural and stage to the community greenspace.

“For The Nature Conservancy, the Witness Trees Project reflects our commitment to fostering and enabling equitable access to nature and its benefits,” says Isaac Hametz, Baltimore Program Director for TNC in Maryland and DC. “Across the globe and here in Baltimore, Black, Indigenous and people of color have been systematically excluded and othered in the environmental movement. TNC’s multi-year commitment to Turner Station is intended to address this systemic injustice locally—by supporting the Turner Station Conservation Teams with the necessary technical resources, funding and access it needs to continue to advocate for their interests with their voice.”

Phase two of the project includes an intergenerational leadership development program and strategic planning process that will support the Turner Station Conservation Teams in creating a three-to-five-year organizational plan and funding for paid “climate fellows” to implement it. This phase is fully funded by The Nature Conservancy’s Common Ground Fund and will run November 2022 through May 2023. 

Partners are actively raising funds for phases three and four, which propose developing a youth leadership program focused on environmental journalism and landscape stewardship, as well as a community resilience planning effort.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world’s toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 76 countries and territories—37 by direct conservation impact and 39 through partners—we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.