Austin Community Trees: A Legacy of Community and Trees

Two women loosening roots before planting a tree.

Image 1 – 2017, Checking the Root Ball of a 5 gallon Tree 

An innovative approach to tree distribution

Did you know living near trees improves quality of life? The Austin Community Trees program (ACT) was a pioneer in helping people bring the benefits of trees to their neighborhoods. The program provided free trees to residents to help shade yards and streets. It didn’t just hand out trees, though. Through community events, ACT brought neighbors together to plant their trees. At the same time, they were able to learn proper tree care practices. It started in 2006 as a small program. Over time, it grew and developed into a model for future tree planting efforts.  

Rows of potted trees are waiting to be delivered.

Image 2 – 2007, Trees Ready for Delivery 

Neighborhoods working together

Planting trees is more fun when we work as a team! ACT brought neighborhoods together and helped to build community connections. Austin Community Trees went beyond telling people where to come pick up a free tree. Volunteers delivered the trees to their new homes. They provided instructions for proper tree planting and after-care, and included bags of mulch to help the trees get a good start. Local businesses donated food and supplies. Events were carefully planned to make sure people knew when to expect delivery, so neighbors were ready to plant their new trees right away. Because everyone was working on the same day, sharing tools and expertise was easy. In ACT neighborhoods, most people found the help they needed to successfully plant their trees.  

Image 3 – 2017, A Super Volunteer Teaches About Proper Tree Planting


Trees where they are needed most

Austin Community Trees introduced several innovations that made it a model for future programs. The program focused on low canopy areas in under-served neighborhoods. Aerial imagery showed organizers where the greatest need was. ACT focused on places where less than 30 percent of their area had shade from trees with had a City Council Approved Neighborhood Plan and a dedicated group to coordinate distribution. ACT program coordinators, Laura Patlove and later Margaret Valenti, made a list of qualified neighborhoods and chose one each year for free trees. Volunteers canvassed the neighborhood streets to offer trees where they were most needed. They left door hangers at homes so residents could confirm their interest. People would verify their commitment to adopt and care for the trees after planting. They were able to choose the tree they wanted from a list of locally appropriate species. As a result, suitable trees went to homes where people would appreciate and nurture them.

Several newly planted trees line a sidewalk and roadway.

Image 4 – 2012, Newly Planted Trees Along Sidewalk 

Keeping Austin Cool

The main goal of Austin Community Trees was to decrease the Urban Heat Island Effect. Reducing heat can enhance quality of life for residents. It improves health, reduces energy use, cuts environmental emissions, and protects water quality. Temperatures are reduced up to 9 degrees Fahrenheit under shade trees. Shade reduces heat buildup in buildings and pavement. Surface temperatures (especially on concrete and roads) are up to 45 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than unshaded areas. Trees also cool the air through a natural process similar to sweating. Water moves from the soil through roots and branches to leaves. When it evaporates from the leaf surface, it removes some heat from the air.  


6 people in a group with potted trees, the program managers of ACT.

Image 5 – 2007, Austin Community Tree Team! 

A model for the future

The Austin Community Trees program delivered trees to people at the right time to plant them. From 2006-2018, ACT distributed a total of 6300 new trees to 23 neighborhoods. Every neighborhood that applied to ACT received trees and guidance to bring new shade to their streets and sidewalks. Since then, the program has been phased out in favor of new tree distribution programs with a broader reach. We continue to use the principles of nature equity and community involvement that were pioneered in ACT. Bringing communities together through their trees is powerful. Going forward, we hope to expand on the idea of neighborhood planting events. We are proud of the work we did to get new trees planted in under-served areas, but neighborhood connections and education are the real legacy of ACT. 


Interested in learning more about how to incorporate nature equity and community engagement practices into your tree planting efforts? Email us for more information. 


Think Trees Logo

This information is sponsored by the City of Austin. Learn more about trees and resources at the Tree Information Center!