MIE Capstone Group Helps Northeastern Graduates Plant Trees for Better Neighborhoods

Cathy and Tom Griffin, two Northeastern graduates, have realized the importance of trees during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, they have led the WE Tree Boston project to increase the tree population in Boston’s neighborhoods with the help of a watering system designed by a group of MIE capstone students.

This article originally appeared on Northeastern Global News. It was published by Ian Thomsen. Main photo: Tom and Cathy Griffin created We Tree Boston to plant and care for trees in their urban neighborhood. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

These Northeastern graduates are improving our neighborhoods one tree at a time

Cathy Griffin wasn’t always a tree lover.

“I hated trees,” she says of her former life in Acton, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston.

Tom, her husband, didn’t exactly enjoy raking leaves. He and Cathy were fed up with paying to have trees removed from their property.

Their perspective changed in 2019 when they decided to move into the city. As they walked around their new neighborhood, it occurred to them that something was missing.


“During COVID, I was working a million hours,” she says of the isolated lifestyle created by the pandemic. “I was looking out the window and I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, it really does improve mental health’ — you look at a tree, you hear the birds. It really helps.” Dovetailing with that revelation were Northeastern Global News stories, including one about the drought of 2022. As proud Northeastern graduates, it occurred to Cathy and Tom that something had to build the tree population in their urban neighborhood — and that they should be the ones to do it.

“It’s amazing that there are so many groups at Northeastern that are helping,” Cathy Griffin says of efforts to plant and preserve trees. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

They started WE Tree Boston, a nonprofit devoted to tree education, planting and maintenance in the West End of Boston not far from TD Garden. Over the past two years the Griffins and their team of volunteers have planted 19 trees and 35 seedlings with the guidance and support of Northeastern’s arborist, Stephen Schneider.

The drive to plant and care for trees in urban areas has never been more important. A single tree is capable of absorbing upwards of one ton of carbon dioxide. Trees cool the air, increase property values and may help reduce crime rates, according to a Baltimore study that linked a proliferation of trees with a decrease in crime.

As WE Tree Boston prepares for Earth Day (on April 22) and Arbor Day (April 26)  — a national day of tree planting — Cathy Griffin has a sense that her newfound love of trees was meant to be, based on her Northeastern affiliation.

“I think it’s amazing that there are so many groups at Northeastern that are helping,” she says.

A list of like-minded people in Griffin’s orbit begins with Kate England, the Northeastern graduate who in 2022 was named as the city of Boston’s first director of green infrastructure; Nora Masler, a Northeastern graduate student who is serving as assistant planner in (ironically) Acton, the Griffins’ former home; and Bill Masterson, a Northeastern graduate who founded Tree Eastie, a nonprofit that is transforming the environment of East Boston, which serves as home to Logan International Airport.

“I’ve always liked gardening,” says Masterson, who studied finance at Northeastern. “I enjoy being outdoors, but I don’t have any type of background at all around horticulture.”

This is how a movement starts: The seeds of a good idea sprout into something larger.

‘It’s a health issue’

Like the Griffins, Masterson and his wife moved from a suburb into the city five years ago. He had retired after three versatile decades with Gillette, where he worked in accounting, marketing, sales, business development and integration after the company was bought by Proctor & Gamble.

He was looking for something to do in East Boston.

A Northeastern team led by university arborist Stephen Schneider will join with We Tree Boston on Arbor Day to plant a new tree, tag 250 existing trees and install a new watering solution in Boston’s West End. Photos by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“I just didn’t see many trees at all,” Masterson says. “The more I looked into it and talked to people, I found out that East Boston has the lowest tree canopy in the city at 7%.”

That canopy — the percentage of a city that is shaded by trees — can be assessed using satellite imagery as well as LiDAR (light detection and ranging), an instrument made up of a laser, scanner and GPS receiver. Planes or helicopters are used to map out broad areas using lidar technology.

Masterson says an “appropriate” tree canopy for U.S. cities is 30%.

“The city of Boston has an average of 27%,” he says. “So in Eastie we’re well below the average. We’re an environmental justice community, marginalized with a heavy immigrant population. So there are a lot of good reasons why we should be planting more trees.”

East Boston’s need for trees is especially obvious on hot summer days.

“They take snapshots to see what the daytime temperature is in various parts of Boston, and almost the entire neighborhood of East Boston is one big hot spot,” Masterson says. “On the map it shows bright red, which means that the daytime temperatures in the summer are much higher on average than other parts of Boston.

“These heat islands are caused by not having any shade on the asphalt and so the asphalt heats up. You can imagine if you’re standing on asphalt versus in a park, you’re going to be a lot warmer on the black asphalt. It’s a health issue — the heat’s not good and the sun rays are not good.”

Tree Eastie planted its first tree in October 2021 after signing an agreement with the city.

Read full story at Northeastern Global News

Related Departments:Mechanical & Industrial Engineering