ReTree the District – At the Root of Civic Innovation

Buffalo, NY – With the last 175 trees scheduled to be planted on Saturday, November 5th, ReTree the District will reach the 1,000 tree goal that community partners in Buffalo’s University District set two years ago. More than just planting trees, ReTree the District has sought to infuse both the virtues of the sharing economy and mobile technology into project planning and implementation. The goal was to make it easier, cheaper, and more efficient for citizens to create the change they wanted to see in their community.

A row of newly planted trees on Englewood Avenue.

A row of newly planted trees on Englewood Avenue.

Started in 2014, ReTree the District has planted 825 trees to date, attracted over 1,500 volunteers who have logged more than 5,000 service hours, and resulted in over $100,000 invested in the community.

Hundreds of UB students and dozens of faculty and staff have been instrumental in the project’s success. Through semester long independent studies and colloquium classes, students have not only participated in the physical planting of trees, but also project planning, coalition building, and the logistics required to implement a large scale service event. They’ve canvassed neighborhoods and built relationships with residents and block clubs. Once anonymous tenants of a street, students have become embedded members of the community, bringing their skills, talents, and energy with them.

“Planting trees is a great way to get out of the house, meet your neighbors, and make a positive contribution to your community.  By providing service opportunities that make an immediate impact on the community, we are changing the student-resident dynamic for the better,” said Mickey Vertino, President of the University Heights Collaborative.

Tools for the project have been borrowed from the University Heights Tool Library, a community nonprofit located off of Main Street in Buffalo, that provides individuals and community groups access to thousands of tools for just one small annual fee. Similar to businesses like Reddy Bikeshare and Zipcar, the Tool Library embraces the sharing economy and the idea that access to a product is more important (and cheaper) than ownership.

The Tool Library has also worked with students and community partners to develop many of the digital tools that have helped foster ReTree the District’s culture of civic innovation.


Volunteers sign in via text messaging the morning of the planting. #savepaperplanttrees

When the project started, there was no comprehensively updated tree map for the district. A smartphone-based application helped the team work with UB students to map over 2,500 tree locations in University District. When registration lines were backed up out the door on the first large-scale planting day, a text message-based registration and waiver process decentralized the registration process and collected volunteer contact information in an easy to use digital format. When the event’s troubleshooting phone was overwhelmed by incoming calls about broken tools, missing stakes, or other issues from the field, a text message-based troubleshooting system was created that would allow volunteers to text in issues, while organizers could respond in real time. When online surveys sent out to volunteers after the event only garnered an 8% response rate, a text message-based feedback system was implemented that increased these rates to between 40% and 50%, providing valuable suggestions to incorporate into future planting events.

As the large-scale planting chapter of ReTree the District draws to a close, project partners will be turning their attention and the use of these new civic tools to tree maintenance and stewardship. Thanks to a partnership between the City of Buffalo Parks Department, the Buffalo Green Fund, and Cornell Cooperative Extension, a comprehensive citizen-based tree stewardship program called the CommuniTree Steward Program debuted last spring. ReTree the District partners have also offered half a dozen field-based hands-on stewardship workshops throughout University District.

Whether it be large scale tree plantings, such as ReTree the District, or neighborhood cleanups, public art initiatives, community gardens, or the beautification of neighborhood parks, these civic tools allow communities to do more with less and organize in ways that would have been impossible a decade ago.

UB Students work with a resident to backfill their newly planted tree

UB Students work with a resident to backfill their newly planted tree

By focusing on the physical improvement of a neighborhood through a low-cost, participatory project like ReTree the District, organizations can engage community members directly in the process of change and provide a neighborhood with a new sense of what is possible when working together. Projects such as tree plantings are more than the sum of their parts. They are multifaceted projects that foster citizen empowerment, improve the physical environment, promote community development, and bridge the divide between diverse populations.

Project sponsors include the Buffalo Green Fund, Buffalo Promise Neighborhood, University at Buffalo, UB Academies, University District Community Development Association, University District Councilmember Rasheed Wyatt, and the University Heights Collaborative. Additional support has been provided by Akron Tree Farms, Bailey Avenue Business Association, Chestnut Ridge Nursery, City of Buffalo Division of Parks and Recreation, Dash’s Market, Home Depot, ReTree WNY, Schichtel’s Nursery, St. Joseph University Parish, St. Joseph Neighborhood Housing Initiative, University District Block Club Coalition, University Heights Tool Library, and Wegmans.


For more information, to get involved, or to donate please visit or contact Darren Cotton, Director, University Heights Tool Library (; 716-857-0096)