Savannah lost a lot of trees in Hurricanes Matthew and Irma.

UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant is helping restore the lost greenspace in order to decrease flood risk and beautify barren space, while training Savannah residents in landscape design and infrastructure improvements.

The “Green Infrastructure to Green Jobs,” funded by the Southeast Sustainable Communities Fund, will create urban tree nurseries in low-lying, flood-prone neighborhoods in the city.

“We’ve been looking at how much Savannah’s urban tree nursery had been lost over the decades,” says Nick Deffley, sustainability director for the city of Savannah and lead on the project. “We were losing a lot of trees to development, some were just getting old, and we had two hurricanes in the last three years that took a toll as well.”

The hurricanes—Matthew in October 2016 and Irma in September 2017—caused significant damage to Savannah’s tree canopy, with Hurricane Matthew costing over $13 million in tree debris removal and unknown losses in water storage from mature trees. The City of Savannah owns over 350 flood-prone FEMA lots that are underutilized community assets. As coastal Georgia experiences extremes in weather, municipal governments are looking to green infrastructure, such as tree canopies, to improve their resilience to major storm events.

Deffley is working with a team of experts, including land-use and resiliency specialists at UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, to engage the members of the community in the project, helping them understand their risks and recognize the benefits of implementing green infrastructure, such as tree canopies.

Since the project launched in 2018, more than 500 trees have been planted at three urban tree nurseries by trainees in the Landscape Management Apprenticeship Program, an innovative workforce development program that trains residents in arbor care, plant identification, installation and maintenance.

The trainees involved in the program were recruited through two events hosted by the city of Savannah and WorkSource Coastal, a federally funded program designed to assist coastal residents in job training and career placement.

Last December, the trainees attended a four-day training that was modeled after the Georgia Certified Landscape Professional program, developed by UGA Cooperative Extension’s Center for Urban Agriculture. They heard from guest speakers with expertise in green infrastructure and landscaping, and attended a field trip to the UGA Botanical Garden where they practiced planting trees and installing irrigation systems.

The experience is exposing them to green industry careers and helped light the pathway to employment and advancement through skill development and professional certification.

“The whole intent is to not only introduce all of these folks to potential employers in this field, but it’s to really do everything we can to get them placed in jobs that are much more sustaining,” says Deffley.

UGA Cooperative Extension specialists trained participants in fundamental landscaping skills, including plant ID, planting practices and maintenance.

Through the traineeship, 22-year-old Jason Smith has been able to secure a job with Victory Gardens, a professional landscaping company based in Savannah that focuses on installing landscapes that are ecologically sound.

“Every skill that I learn with Nick, I apply them here every day,” says Smith, who has an associate degree in graphic design from Briarcliffe College in New York. “This job incorporates design in outdoor work. I love nature. I love the color green. It’s a pathway for me to express myself while working.”

At the end of the year-long trainee program, Smith and four other participants will take a two-part landscape management certification test that includes a hands-on and a written component. To help them prepare, they are assisting with community beautification projects throughout the city that require them to apply the landscaping knowledge that they are gaining through the program.

They spent most of the spring and summer helping with one of the beautification projects, which involved clearing several overgrown FEMA lots on 52nd Street near Mills B. Lane. The area has long been a concern for residents due to illegal dumping. Now that the site is cleared, the city can more easily access and regularly maintain the area, which will eventually be planted with native flowering shrubs.

“Hopefully it’ll be a nice spot that people can come and look at instead of being afraid of,” says Deffley.

Additional sites for beautification include East Savannah, where project partners are working with members of the community to plant fruit trees in planter boxes built by a local resident out of recycled wooden pallets. The boxes will be painted by local elementary school students with Loop it up Savannah, a nonprofit that brings creative art experiences to the children and families of Savannah.

West Savannah residents have requested a large “Welcome to West Side” mural as a way of building a sense of pride among residents in the community.

Through these community projects, the trainees are not only building new skills that are vital to increasing green infrastructure in Savannah, but they are educating residents in the area about how these initiatives are beneficial to people and the environment.

“We’re out here three days a week, and every day people ask, ‘what are you guys doing?’” says Robert Hartwell, who is participating in the landscaping program. “People need to know about this stuff, you know? “It starts with the community.”

Robert Hartwell is one of 12 participants in the Green Infrastructure to Green Jobs training program.

Hartwell is taking steps towards starting his own his own landscaping business, first forming an LLC (limited liability company) then buying a pick-up truck and landscaping tools.

“That’s what’s so good about this program. It teaches you all the steps,” says Hartwell.

Deffley hopes the project encourages the trainees and people in the community to be a little more engaged in nature and understand the true benefit of trees.

“Encouraging them to provide feedback, share ideas and having them help implement the projects; I think that’s how we start that longer term buy-in,” says Deffley.

Additional project partners include the Savannah Tree Foundation, Victory Gardens, Work Source Georgia and the Chatham County-Savannah Metropolitan Planning Commission. The Kendeda Fund is also providing support for the initiative.