A Conversation With Liz Johnston, Director at City Forest Credits

Zan McPherson and Liz Johnston, City Forest Credits
June 9, 2021

Liz, tell us about City Forest Credits.

City Forest Credits (CFC) is a national carbon registry and impact certification organization. We provide financing pathways for businesses to contribute to society and urban forests in metropolitan areas across the United States. Companies can invest in local tree projects that create direct benefits for the health and well-being of people and environment. That’s the heart of our work – providing a new way for private-sector dollars to support planting and protecting trees in cities. We offer two services: verified carbon offsets, or certified planting projects with health, equity, and environmental impacts.


Why was City Forest Credits founded?

Prior to founding the organization in 2015, we spoke with leaders and subject matter experts about three main problems that our urban forests are facing: declining number of trees, lack of public funding, and inequitable distribution of trees across neighborhoods. We see trees as critical “green infrastructure” – similar to roads and other utilities that provide direct benefits to people and make cities function. They are also part of how we measure community livability by providing gathering places, economic opportunities, and nurturing public health. Over 5.5 billion urban trees in the U.S. provide $18.3 billion per year in benefits to clean our air, purify our water, store carbon, and reduce energy needs for heating and cooling buildings. 

Bottom line, we need more trees in cities. Unfortunately, data shows that urban forests across the country are declining at rapid rates. A 2018 study by the US Forest Service found that we are losing 36 million trees in urban areas every year. That represents over 175,000 acres of urban trees lost every year. And with increasing urbanization and climate change effects, residents are experiencing hotter days, more extreme weather events, air pollution, and other stresses. The health and livelihoods of communities relies on city trees. 

So while we know trees are an invaluable public resource, cities are stressed with finding and dedicating funding to care for and plant more trees. This is why, with a collaborative cross-sector team, CFC developed these two approaches to address funding shortages for city forests.


Tell us more about how CFC helps facilitate engagement with private companies to help pay for investments in urban forestry?

Urban forestry is localized, so it lacks a national platform for simple, credible, and measurable pathways for companies to contribute funds. By purchasing verified carbon credits or funding certified tree plantings, businesses can take local action and create triple bottom line community impact. With carbon credits, companies make local investments that leverage their dollars where it matters most, and CFC helps maintain integrity and quality for every project. The robust carbon protocols and certification standards that govern these projects benefit companies and provide them with reportable data. Moreover, companies are able to invest in the communities where their employees live, work, and play. Everyone wins!


Tell us about your newly developed Impact Certification.

We developed Impact Certification to provide a new set of tools for communities, nonprofit organizations, and local governments to design planting projects and connect to upfront funding. We created a new pathway for urban forest leaders to demonstrate return on investment for companies. Impact Certification is the first of its kind to provide a mechanism for the private sector to fund tree planting projects with health, equity, and environmental impacts that are rooted in science. More simply stated, it matches communities with companies who want to pay for high quality projects with measurable outcomes. 

Advancements are being made in technology to map disparities in tree canopy cover, assess where residents are experiencing high temperatures, and remedy environmental injustices. We wanted to build on these advancements to provide a way for businesses to invest in on-the-ground tree projects that are led by communities and close equity gaps.

The Impact Scorecard is a central part of the Certification. The Scorecard is a list of impacts and indicators that assess and describe the value of urban trees, broken into three categories and based on scientific and academic research. We don’t want to tell a community how to design or carry out a project. Instead, the Scorecard is like a menu of options to prompt ideas and encourage forward-thinking, including elements such as site selection in underserved neighborhoods, inclusive and respectful community engagement, and climate action through quantified ecosystem benefits. 

In addition to providing inspiration and customization for projects, the Impact Scorecard provides metrics and scores. Scoring systems are challenging. Project-level data for reporting to colleagues, executive teams, shareholders, and more is an important way to drive further investment, so we included a point system to create category scores that reflect the project’s priorities. Each impact and indicator is also connected to the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

It’s been wonderful to see how the first cohort of certified projects in Arizona, Iowa, and Illinois have taken shape. Trees have been planted at elementary schools, in historically under-resourced neighborhoods, and in conjunction with green workforce training and employment programs.


How does the Impact Certification process work?

City Forest Credits provides a standardized framework for the projects to be designed, the platform to attract funding, and reporting on outcomes. The process consists of three steps – connect, design, achieve. First, we link companies or foundations interested in paying for tree planting with nonprofits or municipalities, known as “Local Operators,” who lead high value tree planting projects. Then, Local Operators use the Impact Scorecard to design a project of any size with the community. Alternatively, companies can fund a pre-designed project or provide money for a project to be created in a location important to its local stakeholders and operations. Last, after the Local Operator plants trees, CFC issues a high-level Impact Summary and detailed Impact Report to the Funder. The CFC Impact Project Directory hosts online information about the certified impact project and provides another accessible way to share outcomes.

This Certification process is the first in the field to connect tree planting at a project level with assessments of impacts across three categories – health, equity, and environment – and then package it up in a way that attracts companies to invest more dollars into local priorities.


It sounds as though planning and engagement with communities is an important feature of the Impact Certification process. Help us understand that better, as well as the community’s ability to prioritize the health, equity, and environmental benefits and outcomes of a planting project.   

Trees shape the identity of our neighborhoods. Research has found that the quality of peoples’ lives is directly related to the quality of the neighborhood environment where they live. Impact Certification helps to tell the story of trees and their extensive benefits on physical and psychological human well-being. 

For example, the shade from trees can cool an area between 2 and 10 degrees Fahrenheit, which mitigates heat exposure for residents and reduces negative health impacts like heat exhaustion. This is important for city planning, considering the impacts of climate change, and understanding how trees factor into mitigating negative impacts, especially in historically impacted communities. Access to and immersion in forested areas has also been found to help reduce stress and promote active lifestyles, which can reduce obesity, cardiovascular disease, and improve overall well-being.   

The location and process of planting trees also matters. Low-income neighborhoods that have been historically marginalized through redlining and other racial policies and injustices don’t have as many trees or parks as more affluent neighborhoods. This inequitable tree distribution results in disproportional negative health impacts in underserved communities. 

Learning from subject matter experts about distributional, procedural, and restorative environmental justice, we’ve included metrics in the Impact Scorecard such as research into neighborhood historical and current sociocultural inequities and connecting with informal social networks and leaders. A collaborative, inclusive, and thoughtful project planning process is essential, along with community involvement in decision-making and long-term care. We hope that each project will take steps toward building trust, mutual respect, place-based leadership, and making space to listen to one another as we invest in greening our cities.


How might other conservation partners get involved with the Impact Certification or CFC’s work in general?

In the Puget Sound region, King County is leading a project in Kent, and ECOSS and the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust are leading a project in the Duwamish River Valley. You can learn more about these projects and find other examples of impact projects at the Impact Project Directory.

We’d love to hear from you. You can reach us at info@cityforestcredits.org and check out more on our website at www.cityforestcredits.org


(Featured Photo Credit: American Forests)