Yale University

Class News

Class of '64 supports URI with summer internships

Our class is supporting the Urban Resources Initiative (URI), based at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Services, with funding to enable summer internships for URI initiatives. The following items (in reverse chronological order) describe this work.

A Greener New Haven has 1,000 more trees

New Haven Register, February 14, 2011

Working with the city, Urban Resources Initiative, a nonprofit organization affiliated with Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, has planted 1,000 trees in the last year.

The trees are part of a goal to plant 10,000 in the next five years, half by URI and New Haven, half by individuals, businesses and institutions. If the goal is met, the city should have more than 40,000 trees in its parks and on its streets.

Trees are more than things of beauty. They provide shade and cooling, control storm water and clean the air by removing pollutants and carbon dioxide.

The tree-planting initiative is the truly green part of the city's environmental efforts. It got an added impetus from a survey that found some sections of the city had relatively few trees, and the realization that more trees were being cut down than planted.

Most of the trees URI has planted have been in the strip of land between the curb and sidewalk. Anyone can request a tree. In return, they must agree to care for it.

The URI program got into full swing last fall, when 500 trees were planted. The program is not just about trees. For its planters, URI hires and trains high school students, who learn about ecology and tree care, ex-convicts and recovering drug addicts who pick up basic job skills while earning a living.

The URI program is about people as well as trees. In more than one way, it is helping to improve the quality of life and environment in New Haven.

Prisons, Then Parks: A Therapeutic Journey

New York Times, August 2, 2011

This spring, James Sweat planted saplings on a grassy shoulder of Jewell Street in New Haven — English oak, scarlet oak, northern red oak and pink spire crabapple. Wearing a white T-shirt, black jeans and thin wire glasses, he paused to smoke a cigarette and sip a beer. "If you saw me on the street, you know, you wouldn't think I'm a criminal," he said.

With four other former prison inmates, Mr. Sweat, 23, was working for the Urban Resources Initiative, a New Haven nonprofit affiliated with Yale University that marries the goal of reintegrating prisoners into society with urban forestry through its GreenSkills program. The crew of five men planted about a dozen trees a day in New Haven, nudging the city closer to its goal of planting 10,000 new trees by 2014.

To some, the sight of toughened and tattooed men from prison pruning trees, tipping water cans and gently tamping soil may seem a bit incongruous. But Urban Resources Initiative and a growing group of organizations across the country are testing the premise that such efforts can restore urban ecosystems and give inmates a sense of stability and purpose.

The programs are proving all the more pragmatic, advocates say, as cities and states contend with steep budget deficits and prison systems struggle with populations that are far beyond capacity. Last year the national prison population shrank for the first time in 39 years as officials, seeking in some cases to reduce overcrowding, released more than 600,000 inmates.

With the unemployment rate above 9 percent, these former inmates are at a greater disadvantage than most in seeking work. "The question is, what are we going to do with all of these people?" said Colleen Murphy-Dunning, the director of Urban Resources Initiative. "What are they going to do with themselves?"

Ex-convicts have an average unemployment rate of 50 percent. James Jiler, former director of a two-acre garden and farm at the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City, says that this remains a central challenge for parolees. "Idle hands are the devil's playground," he said. "If these men and women don't have steady work, they may find ways to occupy themselves that are not so productive."

Recidivism rates top 60 percent in some states. Yet studies of employed ex-convicts have found that their recidivism rate is less than half that of all released prisoners.

Advocates like Ms. Murphy-Dunning and Mr. Jiler say that the work does far more than simply occupy a worker's time and pay a salary, however. "There is something integral about our connection with nature," Mr. Jiler said. Gardening, he said, "offers the peace and tranquility necessary for these folks to get beyond other issues in their lives."

Horticultural therapy is quite literally ancient history: centuries ago, Chinese Taoists lauded the benefits of gardens and greenhouses. In the 1699 edition of "The English Gardener," the writer Leonard Meager declared that "there is no better way to preserve your health" than spend time in a garden.

In 1984 the Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson coined the term biophilia to describe the innate human "tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes" and to bond with the natural world. "Our existence depends on this propensity," Dr. Wilson wrote. "Our spirit is woven from it, hope rises on its currents."

After years of working in factories, James Cunningham served five years in prison. At age 34, he returned to Newark and began a six-month internship with the New Jersey Tree Foundation, where he is now employed full-time. He cares for thousands of trees, helps maintain a nursery and leads two planting crews of parolees in the spring and autumn. "Now I love getting up and going to work," he said. "This job gives me an overall respect for life."

On days off, Mr. Cunningham occasionally drives through town with his daughter as if through an art gallery, pointing to and naming the trees that he has planted. "I'm proud of that," he said.

In an era of shrinking budgets, such programs can also prove less costly for cities and states than hiring private contractors to plant and maintain trees. It's "a lot less costly than the private sector," Ms. Murphy-Dunning said of groups like hers.

Ben Falk, founder and director of Whole Systems Design, a sustainable landscaping company in Vermont's Mad River Valley, says that such programs are ultimately about "healing the land and the people simultaneously." He is working with the Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor, Vt., to redevelop 450 acres of state-owned land as a working farm tended by inmates.

"In our prisons we're not rehabilitating prisoners effectively; on our land we're not growing what we need to live anymore," Mr. Falk said. "We need to move toward a solution that works synergistically with these problems."

Messages from Amy Zvonar, 1964 Summer Intern for Urban Resources Initiative (August 31, 2011)

Dear Mr. Lavely and the Members of the Class of 1964:

I want to express my gratitude for your support of my internship with the URI Greenspace program this summer. The internship experience is a valuable component of my work towards a Master's degree in Environmental Management. My decision to pursue this degree was motivated by my experience as an environmental educator. Teaching adults and children about environmental issues cultivated my desire to learn how to more effectively connect people to each other and their environment. The work I am doing in the communities of New Haven through the URI Greenspace internship is helping me gain the practical skills and knowledge I need to achieve this goal.

I am excited to have the opportunity to learn about the New Haven community and environment through this internship experience. It would be a pleasure to meet with you at your convenience to talk about my work with URI. You can contact me through email or cell phone(678-315-0836). I look forward to meeting you!


Amy Zvonar
Master of Environmental Management, 2012
Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies

Hi Tony,

Thank you for the information regarding the Class Council meeting in early February. I look forward to it. I am attaching a few pictures that I have of me working with my Crossroads crew this summer. Please feel free to post them on your class website.

For a little background, Crossroads is a residential rehabilitation facility for men and women battling addictions. The guys who worked with me this summer came out on a volunteer basis because they wanted to be involved in environmental restoration work and community service. In one picture, they are working on a stream restoration project. The group is removing invasive Japanese knotweed in an effort to allow native plants to grow along the bank. A second project they tackled was the planting of 3 trees (2 European Hornbeams and 1 Chestnut Oak) at a public housing site. The trees were requested by residents who wanted a shaded area and something nicer to look at than a chain link fence.

During the planting we had two residents approach us full of excitement and ready to water the trees with their grandchildren. The guys were very proud to have made such a visible impact.

Enjoy and I look forward to meeting you.

Best, Amy