IN 2005, Andrea Dawber came across a project named Walk Here. She recalls thinking about Davenport, the tree-challenged Toronto community where she lives: It needs to be green here, she realized, if people are going to walk here. And so began GreenHere, the 2010 winner of Earth Day Canada’s Hometown Hero group award.

One only needs to visit some of the poorer communities in Toronto and other Canadian cities to discover that they often lack the leafy green canopy found in tony neighbourhoods such as Toronto’s Rosedale or Calgary’s Mount Royal. “Davenport is mixed residential and industrial,” Dawber explains. “It has lots of paved surfaces.”

She recalls the hot sun beating down as she walked through nearby Dovercourt Park one afternoon. She realized that the park was empty because neighbourhood kids and seniors had either stayed locked indoors or fled to shadier places. So Dawber organized a meeting to discuss what the community might do about their shadeless parks and playgrounds. Soon, a small group had put together a neighbourhood reforestation plan and GreenHere was essentially born. It took six years to accomplish the plan, but neighbours are now playing or simply hanging out in Davenport on July afternoons.

The regreening effort is a partnership between the community and the City of Toronto, says Dawber. “We made a commitment to the city that if they put in the trees, we would mobilize the community to care for them.” And people do. They haul out their hoses and water the new trees.

GreenHere, incorporated as a not-for-profit organization in 2008, suspected that neighbourhood trees could also improve health. So the organization pulled together a panel of scientists to discuss the topic. They learned that trees remove air pollutants, increase privacy and reduce noise. Recognizing that the trees that did exist in Davenport were well beyond their zenith and beginning to die, GreenHere decided to “pump up the green infrastructure” by drawing upon one of Toronto’s little-known secrets. “I was kind of intrigued that the city gave away trees for free,” Dawber remarks, “but nobody knew about it.”

With a full-time staff of three, plus a dozen or more part-timers, GreenHere is also turning asphalt schoolyards into greener places. In 2008, the group removed 400 square metres of pavement from Pope Paul VI Catholic School. They planted 17 shade trees, 50 native shrubs and added 600 cubic metres of organic matter. GreenHere also built an herb garden and created a partnership between students and local senior volunteers to care for the new “living playground.”

“I think kids long to be outdoors more than they are,” explains Dawber, who has an 11-year-old son. Increasingly, in Davenport, they are.

Nicola Ross is the former Editor of Alternatives Journal, and is a member of the editorial board.

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