#FreetownTheTreeTown campaign: Using digital tools to encourage tree cultivation in cities


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A group of Freetown residents pose with their seedlings.
A group of Freetown residents pose with their seedlings.

Freetown, located at the seaward tip of a heavily forested, mountainous peninsula, is the capital of Sierra Leone, dominating its urban, economic, and social landscape. Each year, more than 100,000 people in search of employment move to the city, and the urban fringes continue to push deeper into the steep forest expanses outside the city. As a result, an equivalent of 12% of total canopy in the area was lost per year between 2011 and 2018.

Loss of tree canopy directly affects catchment areas for water reserves, exacerbating the risks of landslides, flooding, and coastal erosion. Loss of tree and vegetation cover also threatens biodiversity. Against the backdrop of population expansion and rapid urbanization, the Freetown City Council came up with a plan to plant and grow 1 million trees by 2022—an effort that would increase the city's vegetation cover by 50%. 

Welcome to #FreetowntheTreeTown—an unconventional tree-planting campaign. This innovative effort harnesses digital and disruptive technology to create employment opportunities for local youth  during the COVID-19 pandemic; it also helps establish long-term climate resilience for the community. The campaign comes with ecosystem benefits that include reducing heat stress, improving air and water quality, and reducing flooding and landslide risks.

The campaign pioneers an innovative, sustainable tree-growing model. Freetown City Council, working closely with neighboring Western Area Rural District Council, partnered with Greenstand, a nonprofit that develops open-source technology to manage environmental goods and services. Community-based growers use its TreeTracker app on locally available smartphones to create a unique geotagged record, or ID, for each new tree planted—including a photo. Growers revisit each seedling periodically, to water and maintain, verify and document the plant's survivaland receive mobile money micropayments for their efforts. The goal of this growing and monitoring model is to enhance community ownership over the entire tree-growing project chain—a measure to ensure that the targeted 80% tree-survival rate is achieved.

Beyond the individual geotagging of new plantings, the growing model also includes an intricate seedling-purchasing, distribution, and management system supported by open source applications. These include the Open Data Kit for operational surveys, QGIS for geospatial data management and analysis, and third-party verification systems to ensure transparency for seedling-growth validation over time.

To ensure sustained financing for tree growth, tree IDs can be turned into “impact tokens,” which can be bought, sold, and traded by businesses and individuals. This approach will generate a new revenue stream to fund more tree-planting and growing support.