WATERTOWN — Half a dozen teenagers in matching green T-shirts crowded around a large tree on a residential street. Their coordinator, David Meshoulam, looked up from his notes in excitement.
“Hey guys, this is a hybrid elm! Should we do a health check on it while we’re here?” he asked.
The teens spent seven weeks this summer caring and advocating for the public trees that line Watertown’s streets and sidewalks. The Watertown Teen Tree Stewardship Program aims to not only care for the town’s urban canopy, but to grow a new generation of environmentally conscious citizens.
“A lot of us care about fixing climate change, having a future on this planet. And trees are such a vital part to it,” said Miles Hohmann, who at 17 was one of the oldest of the group. “It’s necessary to plant trees, and make sure there are trees, and that they do well.”
The program, which wrapped up Thursday, was launched by the nonprofit Trees for Watertown and funded with a grant from the Watertown Community Foundation. It was conceived by Meshoulam, who became a Trees for Watertown member after working as a science teacher for nearly 10 years.
“I just realized that there are so many bigger problems in the world than teaching kids content,” Meshoulam said. “If we can find a way to connect kids to their world in a way that’s authentic, that really feels a lot more important.”
When Meshoulam interviewed students for the inaugural group, what jumped out to him was how much they loved being outdoors. “They wanted to spend time outside but none of them have direct experience in tree care so this is new for all of us,” he said.
In addition to Hohmann, the members of the team were Lila Cherry-German, Marco Libertini, Trevor Russo, Nezzi Da Silva, and Catherine Holt.
Each morning, the teens spent a couple of hours caring for young trees that Chris Hayward, Watertown’s tree warden, had planted. Hayward sent a copy of his inventory of nearly 5,000 street trees to Meshoulam so it could be integrated into an app developed by the Nature Conservancy called Healthy Trees, Healthy Cities.
When Meshoulam and the teens went out into the field, they made sure to carry at least one iPad with them so they could use the app to update Hayward’s data with their own findings. That way, Meshoulam said, “they can start tracking the tree longitudinally so in a year or two they can come back and see how much the tree has grown.”
Although they were primarily focused on taking care of trees less than three years old, Hayward gave the group permission to help any trees on public property.
Along with tree care, community engagement is another key part of the stewardship program. The group has been creating a series of posters and pamphlets to educate the public about their work and the greater benefits of trees.
“Marco is working on an engagement advocacy sign that will alert the public to the benefit of a specific tree,” Meshoulam said. “Miles is working on a door hanger so the idea is if we’re working in front of people’s houses, we can tell them what we’ve done.”
The teens were invited as a part of the Watertown Wellness Program to share their work at a community table at the town’s weekly farmer’s market. They also worked on a map overlay in Google Maps where people can upload photos of their favorite trees in Watertown.
“This will allow people to do a self-guided tour of trees in Watertown,” Meshoulam said. “Our one request is that the tree is viewable from public property. We certainly don’t want people to go into your backyard looking for the tree.”
The teens also researched the benefits trees can have on an urban community. They found that trees can make communities cooler, both through shade and by releasing water vapor into the air. Trees also reduce stormwater runoff because they have a permeable surface, unlike surrounding concrete. Trees can also act as a windbreak for surrounding houses.
“You can’t plant [just] any tree in an urban area,” Meshoulam said. “Some trees are a little more finicky. You want a tree that can withstand all conditions, can take a beating sometimes if people bump into it.”
The Watertown Teen Tree Stewardship program is Meshoulam’s first step toward his long-term goal of growing his own organization. One day he hopes to partner with tree advocacy groups in other cities and towns to increase the tree canopy in Greater Boston.
“There are parts of Boston where you look at a map and there’s just concrete the whole way through,” Meshoulam said.
One solution, he said, is to include trees in new construction projects.
“I really think that they offer nothing but benefits and it just takes a different kind of planning and a different kind of mindset but they need to be part of the solution,” Meshoulam said.
Several of the teens said they hoped to continue working with trees, perhaps through an after-school club.
“We’re all Watertown residents so it wouldn’t be impossible to do,” Hohmann said. “It’s nice to be out and walking every day — seeing different parts of the town that I wouldn’t normally see.”Sophia Eppolito can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @SophiaEppolito.