Cincinnati Parks, MadTree partner for a greener future

One focus of the Green Cincinnati Plan is ensuring there is enough tree canopy cover to help the city prepare for impending climate change.

Research shows that not having enough trees can lead to ailments, such as chronic respiratory conditions. Property can be damaged by extreme heat and flooding from shifts in weather patterns. 

And experts believe that lower-income neighborhoods and communities where people of color reside are most vulnerable to becoming “urban heat island neighborhoods,” according to the city’s Office of Environment and Sustainability. In Cincinnati, areas with the least amount of tree canopy cover can get up to 12 degrees warmer in the summer than those with more trees and green spaces. 

Cincinnati Parks and its urban forestry team have worked for the past four decades to plant and maintain trees of all sorts and sizes in parks, tree lawns, public spaces and the right-of-way in areas across the city.

But the city department does have limitations. It can’t just go on private property and start planting trees, said Crystal Courtney, who oversees the parks’ division of natural resources.

Trees aren’t cheap, either; trees between 6 and 10 feet can cost up to $200 – and the cost goes up as the size increases, as does the cost of planting. Putting in trees can be cost-prohibitive for cash-strapped homeowners. 

Cincinnati Parks, limited by the city budget, doesn’t have the means to buy enough trees by itself either. 

That’s where the Cincinnati Parks Foundation and its corporate partner, MadTree Brewing, come in.

At Mount Storm Park: Rhiannon Hoeweler, MadTree Brewing; Jennifer Hafner Spieser, Cincinnati Parks Foundation; Brady Duncan, MadTree Brewing
At Mount Storm Park: Rhiannon Hoeweler, MadTree Brewing; Jennifer Hafner Spieser, Cincinnati Parks Foundation; Brady Duncan, MadTree Brewing

For the past four years, MadTree and the Cincinnati Parks Foundation have worked together to promote the ReLeaf program – a tree giveaway open to all Cincinnati residents, with a focus on neighborhoods with the lowest percentage of canopy. 

Four decades of green investment

Cincinnati has embraced the notion that trees and nature are essential to human life since the creation of its first public greenspace in 1817. Through the Cincinnati Parks Department, the city has spent two centuries planting trees in parks, on public land and in rights of way across the Queen City.

Since the 1980s, its team of arborists has cared for and managed every tree on public land within city limits. Their work includes not only tree trimming and care but also long-term management plans. City property owners fund the program through a $0.03 per front foot assessment. These funds can be used only to purchase and manage trees within the right-of-way, such as tree lawns and public land.

So the city started the ReLeaf Program in 1988, and it conducts regular analyses to determine tree coverage across Cincinnati. 

“We found that only 1% of the entire canopy in the city is actually within the right-of-way, so if we’re going to make a dent and to meet the goals of canopy citywide, then we have to find alternative methods,” Courtney said. “That’s what the ReLeaf program is really about.”

A happy, fruitful accident

The fruitful ReLeaf partnership between MadTree and Cincinnati Parks wasn’t so much planned as just kind of happened, said Jennifer Hafner Spieser, president and CEO of Cincinnati Parks Foundation.

For most of ReLeaf’s 35-year history, the foundation partnered with Cincinnati-based Cinergy and later Duke Energy, which acquired Cinergy in 2005, to cover program costs.

That partnership ended a few years ago – about the same time MadTree began seeking to “establish deeper roots” in the community, said Brady Duncan, a brewery co-founder.

The popular beer maker opened its anchor space in Cincinnati’s Oakley neighborhood in 2013. In those early years, MadTree focused on making a quality product and just kind of “holding on for dear life,” Duncan said.

As the brewery started to find its place in the craft brew world, Duncan and fellow founder Kenny McNutt voiced a desire to “get back to their origins” and give back to Cincinnati. 

The Queen City transplants looked at their old business plan’s vision for investing in local neighborhoods, Duncan said. He described that moment as a “double-down” on what they wanted to be as a company.

“There’s a reason we put our beer in cans; it’s better for the environment. There’s a reason we call ourselves MadTree,” Duncan said. “We want to be rooted in the community and want to be a part of taking care of the Earth.”

Corporate philanthropy matters

MadTree was an early adopter of the 1% for the Planet campaign, led by companies of all sizes committing 1% of their gross sales to local nonprofits, especially those focused on sustainability.

The initiative has raised tens of millions of dollars for nonprofits around the world. MadTree has a goal of raising $5 million for that cause.

At first, Duncan said, his team focused on making “little splashes wherever we could” as opposed to “really saying this is what we’re going to get behind.”

One of those splashes was its investment in the Arbor Day Foundation, a national nonprofit focused on planting trees. It’s a great organization, Duncan said, but it didn’t really help them make the type of local impact they’d envisioned.

That approach started to change in 2019 after a chance encounter between Parks and MadTree, Hafner Spieser said. MadTree was working to make improvements at Mount Storm Park, a site where Cincinnati Parks already planned to plant trees as part of its revitalization plan.

“They thought, ‘Wait a minute, we can just partner directly,’ ” Hafner Spieser recalled.

Since 2020, the Parks Foundation has received more than $208,000 from MadTree through donations and in-kind support. The brewery’s staff, who receive paid time off to volunteer, have also taken part in “all-hands” plantings and beautification projects, adding more than 100 trees in Mount Storm, Ezzard Charles Park in the West End and throughout the Lower Price Hill and Bond Hill neighborhoods.

An estimated record 200 MadTree employees will take part in a planting in Avondale on Oct. 29.

MadTree recently received B Corp Credentials for its commitment to social and environmental initiatives.

At Mount Storm Park: Rhiannon Hoeweler and Brady Duncan of MadTree Brewing with Jennifer Hafner Spieser of Cincinnati Parks Foundation. Photo by Helen Adams.
At Mount Storm Park: Rhiannon Hoeweler and Brady Duncan of MadTree Brewing with Jennifer Hafner Spieser of Cincinnati Parks Foundation. Photo by Helen Adams.

A growing canopy

The Green Cincinnati Plan sets standards for tree canopy coverage in select areas. Within most residential areas the goal is 40%, downtown is 10% and industrial or mixed-use areas are 25%.

Overall, Cincinnati is at 43% coverage, above the desired 40% threshold. But that figure is misleading: “It’s easy to forest a park,” Courtney said. In the neighborhoods, it’s far more difficult.

About 20 city neighborhoods don’t meet the canopy goals. That includes the Oakley neighborhood MadTree calls home.

Cincinnati Parks accepts tree-planting applications from residents and businesses in those sub-40% areas before opening the process to the rest of the city. “That’s really where we’re focusing our efforts,” Courtney said.

The parks team works with Green Umbrella and the Groundwork Ohio River Valley through the Climate Safe Neighborhoods project, which explores the relationship between historical race-based housing segregation and the impacts of climate change in 13 metropolitan areas, including Cincinnati.

“It can’t just all be about us,” Hafner Spieser said. “We have to work with everybody else who’s involved in these communities – from neighborhood councils to businesses to key community members who can outline what needs to be done and what fits the look and feel of the community.”

Groundwork ORV taps community leaders like Margaux Roberts as organizers, who go door-to-door and host events to get people involved in the process. “To be a part of a movement that is manifesting greatness for my neighborhood and city is a true game changer,” said Roberts of Bond Hill, one of the targeted neighborhoods.

“I’m surrounded by environmental superheroes … on a daily basis,” she said.

Blooming bigger every year

ReLeaf has planted more than 25,000 trees at schools, businesses and residences across Cincinnati – and the program is getting bigger. It has taken on a new energy in recent years, Courtney said, at least partially from the brewery adding a “cool factor.”

Over the past four years, ReLeaf has led to the planting of 4,550 new trees, increasing the city’s total canopy by 5%.

Rhiannon Hoeweler, MadTree’s vice president of experience & impact, noted that the brewery turned ReLeaf into a monthlong series of events, similar to other happenings at its Madison Road taproom or Alcove restaurant in Over-the-Rhine.“This is just one of the many ways MadTree is working to make Cincinnati a better community today and into the future,” added Hoeweler, who co-chaired the Parks Foundation’s Hats Off Luncheon last year.

Courtney and the project’s collaborators expect 2024 to be the biggest ReLeaf yet. 

“It just keeps building,” she added. “There’s so much good work in the pipeline, so just keep an eye out for things to come.”

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