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Sharon Johnson, Trees for Cities
Sharon Johnson is the Chief Executive of tree-planting charity Trees for Cities
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CAMPAIGN HERO: Sharon Johnson, Trees for Cities

Ecologist

27th January, 2012

It is estimated that by 2030, 92 per cent of Britons will live in cities. The CEO of charity Trees for Cities on why its so important but difficult to plant trees in our streets

What has been your most successful campaign to date?

It has to be our Tree-Athlon 5km run. The concept was developed eight years ago, and the idea is not only to raise money to improve the urban environment but to involve people in the process by giving runners a tree to plant in their local community. The third element of the event is our world record attempt for the most barefoot runners. Barefoot running quite literally puts you more in touch with the urban environment - and as our projects are all about reconnecting with the urban landscape, this is especially relevant. It's fun too! In 2012, London Olympic year, we hope hundreds of people will come along to the Tree-Athlon on 15 September in Battersea Park to help us set another world record.

What has been your least successful campaign to date?

Ever since we started out back in 1993 it has been difficult to get street trees in the ground. You need to jump through numerous hoops, including obtaining permission from local councils, checking for underground services and cables, digging up pavements and arranging maintenance. All of this makes street tree planting expensive and time consuming. We now have 19 years of experience in this area and have built up very good relationships with many authorities. In 2008 we launched our Trees for Streets campaign. This has seen us treble the number of trees we plant on streets each year. So the time and energy we've invested is now paying off.

What gets you out of bed when you're at your lowest?

Knowing that there's a still a lot to be done, but also seeing first hand the difference our work makes to local communities. Intervention by Trees for Cities has transformed once-neglected wastelands into utilised community spaces. Each year, millions are spent erecting iconic buildings to supposedly improve our cities. I think that the most cost-effective way to improve a city is by creating vibrant greening spaces and beautiful, tree-lined streets. This raises the spirits of everyone.

Corporations: work with them or against them?

We're not just about trees - people are at the heart of everything we do. Our work is about improving the lives of people through tree planting. We work with organisations who'll help us to deliver that. A major part of this involves engaging individuals through workplace volunteering programmes. So yes, we work with corporations. And we accept corporate donations and sponsorship to boost our activities.

What is the best way to motivate people?

We're essentially a grassroots organisation - we get out there and plant trees in some of the most neglected parts of cities. I strongly believe that getting involved with the people you work for in communities, is a great motivator for me, my team and local people.

What's the best way of reaching politicians?

To start with, you need to find some common ground, then focus on the elements of your campaign which resonate most strongly with public opinion. Be determined and passionate and focus on that message until it turns into reality. It is public opinion which generally pushes the right button with politicians. A great example of this was the campaign against the proposed sell-off of our national forests, which generated widespread dismay and alarm. Once politicians started to realise how unpopular their plans to sell off the forests actually was, they backtracked.

What is the most important thing to avoid when campaigning?

Don't be ambiguous. Be clear and concise about what you are looking to achieve and how people can get involved. Have a clear vision and target your desired audience.

Most important thing government could do this year?

The government has done some good things. It is putting £4m into the Big Tree Plant Campaign to plant a million more trees in towns and cities over the term of this parliament. But there's still much more to do. A huge amount is spent each year digging up roads and pavements for one reason or another. We'd like to see a joined-up approach between utility companies and councils to ensure that the pits that need to be created when trees are planted are incorporated in other footway works and considered to be a part of the design of footway. We think this could halve the cost of street tree planting.

Most important thing individuals could do this year?

People are surrounded by news of global warming, melting icecaps and often feel daunted. But the most important thing they can do is realise that they can make a difference. Since 1950 there has been a huge worldwide increase in the percentage of the population living within cities, including in the UK. The trend shows no sign of stopping and for the next 20 years, the flow of people is predicted to continue soaring. By 2030 92 per cent of Britons will live in cities. If each urban household planted or supported the planting of a tree in their city it could make a huge difference.

What makes a good campaigner?

Passion and determination has to be at the top of my list - and the skill to encourage people to listen, learn and engage with their local environment and the planet.

What (other) campaign has caught your attention recently?

A film I saw last year, called No Impact Man. It was about a guy in New York who wanted to live his life for a year without making any impact on the environment. He gave up magazines, driving, flying, electricity - anything and everything that had an impact - and almost his wife! The most poignant part of the film was the message that people didn't need to go to this extreme to make a difference. It highlighted that if you did just one thing such as volunteer with an environmental charity, you can make a huge difference.

Who is your campaign hero (past or present)?

I have a few. Firstly, Dr Birute Galdikas, who inspired me to work in the environmental field. She has devoted her life to studying, conserving and protecting the orang-utan and I was lucky enough to meet her while working in one of Borneo's wildest places, Tanjung Puting Reserve in Indonesia, where she began her work. I also hugely admire Sir Peter Scott who set up the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. Like his father, Captain Scott of the Antarctic, he had a great passion for the planet and environment, and was a great scientist.

I would also like to acknowledge Noble Peace Laureate Professor Wangari Maathai, who sadly passed away last year and who set up the Green Belt Movement in Kenya. We worked with the Green Belt Movement to plant trees and empower and improve the lives of women and local communities in Nairobi. A truly inspirational lady.

Further information
Trees for Cities

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