The headquarters for Keep
Indianapolis Beautiful seems a bit incongruous with its surroundings. Located just
a few blocks from I-65 in Fountain Square, its spinning, energy-producing wind
spires appear to harness the very exhaust from passing cars.
A closer look, however,
reveals that the refurbished warehouse is an oasis of local foliage and simple,
ecologically sound solutions to office waste – marrying office
functionality and environmental savvy, with more than a dash of the cool quirk
emerging in Fountain Square.
Out front, an 8,000-gallon
cylindrical tank collects rainwater to hydrate an adjacent patch of native
plants, providing green space and keeping water out of the city's sewers. The
building's white roof reflects sunlight, insulating the inside. Even the
parking lot is permeable, allowing water to drain through to the ground, and
not into storm drains.
Inside, carpet tiles
assembled from textile mill scraps and recyclable aluminum office furniture
mean less waste when it comes time for replacing them. Skylights and
floor-to-ceiling windows flood the space with natural light. There's even a
small courtyard, perfect for an outdoor meeting.
But Keep Indianapolis
Beautiful (KIB) isn't just leading the charge to a greener city by setting an
example with its own office space. Instead of merely promoting green,
eco-friendly practices in a metaphorical sense, they're being quite literal:
namely by planting trees. So far, the group has planted more than 18,700 trees
Early on, however, KIB
realized that many of the spaces needing trees were owned by the city. Planting
in public spaces required paid contractors to water trees and monitor health.
Thus was born KIB's Youth
Tree Team, which wrapped up its annual summer-long program just last week. KIB
pays high school students on its Youth Tree Teams for watering trees, taking
measurements and monitoring the health of plantings in city green spaces.
"We said, 'We have this need
for tree maintenance – is there another need we can meet in the process
of fulfilling our own?'" said Nate Faris, Youth Tree Team director. "We
realized that high schoolers need good summer jobs. So high schoolers get a
good summer job, we get our trees cared for."
Not just a summer job
The Youth Tree Team program
began in 2006 with just a single crew. By this summer, the program had grown to
comprise six crews.
The program is open to all
high school students in the area, but the selection process is very
competitive. In March, applicants faced a challenge course, testing on-the-job
skills like moving mulch and carrying buckets of water. Those who were
comfortable with manual labor and getting dirty volunteered at a KIB
tree-planting before facing a final interview.
This year, only 15 new spots
were available because of returning workers. Faris said about 100 students made
it to the final interview.
The lucky few selected each
summer earn more than just an hourly wage. The students learn to care for trees
— planting, pruning, watering and mulching. But they also learn career
and life skills beyond horticulture.
Each day started with
calisthenics; if a team member arrived late, the whole group had to start over.
The regimen emphasized the importance of punctuality, personal responsibility
and physical fitness.
And KIB emphasizes student
education beyond the Youth Tree Team. Teams worked in the field three days a
week. The fourth day was set aside for an enrichment activity. Some were
directly related to the environment, like rafting on the White River or an
overnight trek into a forest.
Others focused on
professional development. "We try to connect them to green-collar
professionals," Faris explained. "We have them meet nurserymen who grow trees,
landscape architects around the city. In the past they've met the city arborist
or the city forester. So, they kind of get connected to jobs. If they want to
continue in this industry, they have some ideas of where to go."
Bob Neary, a Youth Tree Team
leader, agreed. "When we work with the youth, we want them to take away more
than just a summer job," he said.
While finding a career is an
important end goal, many high school students have reservations about an
intermediate step: college. KIB has thought of this, too. The group makes
visits to college campuses around the state, where student can seek advice
about financial aid.
"For a lot of them, I think
it breaks down the intimidation that they have," Faris said. "Some of them have
never been to a college campus."
While the members of the
Youth Tree Teams can come from any school, KIB has made special efforts to
reach out to students in Indianapolis Public Schools.
"It's a time when people
discover a lot of their own interests or start digging deeper into whatever
they want to do with their lives," Faris said. He emphasized the importance of
reaching out to young people. "It's a good time to not only give these youth a
good start just with a good job, but perhaps to foster their interest in the
environment, to help them discover it."
While the Youth Tree Teams
have been monitoring KIB plantings since 2006, this summer marked the inception
of a special crew. Two high school students, led by Neary and
leader-in-training Newton Benegas, traveled the city on bicycles, cataloging
the thousands of trees KIB has planted.
Each day the team began by
printing KIB data about a given plant site — with information about what
species to expect, the number of trees planted and an approximate plant date.
Then, using a GPS unit bracketed to the front of each bike, the team would
travel to the site and note the trees and their conditions.
These data are used to help
KIB determine what species thrive in the varying conditions around the city,
which neighborhoods are taking the best care of their trees, and even what
trees look most aesthetically pleasing. Knowing these variables enables KIB to
effectively plant more trees and move closer to its goal: 100,000 new plantings
by 2017, part of its NeighborWoods initiative launched in 2007.
The data have also been
shared with Butler, IUPUI and IU. Future research might include the
relationship between newly planted trees and crime, temperature and rates of
The students on this
particular tree team enjoyed its unique nature.
"I like the biking part, and
I love being outside," said Anye Carson. She found out about the Youth Tree
Teams through a campaign in her school cafeteria.
Ciera Carter said she also
enjoys traveling by bike, visiting new sites every day. "And you get to
interact with people more," she added.
Benegas noted the physical
benefits of cycling. "And we're in more populated areas," he added. "We're
The team pedaled 10 to 15
miles and visited up to 500 trees each day, depending on the proximity of the
plantings. By the end of the summer, the bike team had reported on nearly 6,000
plantings around the city.
With or without the added
technology, Faris has noticed the positive ways in which the Tree Teams
"We go back and look at our
past projects where Youth Tree Teams have been and the trees are thriving," he
said. "I think neighbors have been motivated to get out in the park more or
take more interest in their own park because they see the youth caring for it."