TreeOpp: How Cities Can Embrace the Maker Movement and Create Social Change

It can be easy to feel cynical about the direction of the maker movement as what started as a grass roots movement seems to be increasingly commoditized.

The maker movement is everywhere these days – from schools, to libraries, to museums, to for-profit companies. With so many different people and organizations embracing the maker movement, it can be easy to feel that this movement is becoming a ‘fad’ or a buzzword that people are using to seem trendy (for example, I recently came across a mobile makerspace that brings an emcee and smoke machine to all their school visits).

But the other day I came across an amazing example of how the maker movement is creating positive social change in communities.

TreeOpp is a collaborative initiative in Boulder Colorado that is using the maker movement to address the needs of their community. Boulder, like many areas in Canada and the United States, has had their forests infested by an invasive insect called the “emerald ash borer.”


This insect lays its eggs under tree bark, infesting trees and killing them within a few years. Higher average temperatures during the winters have allowed the insects to spread quickly across western North America, killing hundreds of thousands of trees.

In Boulder more than 6,000 trees on public lands are infected with these insects. At the same time, Boulder has been seeing a sharp increase in its homeless population. The City of Boulder faced two simultaneous challenges – huge amounts of unwanted waste wood and a large population of under-served people in its homeless population.

Boulder turned to the maker movement to help address this problem.

“It was always on the radar that we’d need to figure out some way to think about wood utilization,” says Margo Josephs, the department’s manager of community partnerships and outreach. “Through brainstorming and talking to colleagues and partners we started thinking about who this could benefit.”

Working in together with a homeless advocacy group called Bridge House and BLDG 61, the public library’s makerspace, the City of Boulder applied for and received a $200,000 grant from Knight Foundation, funding 18 months of a program called TreeOpp (short for Tree Debris to Opportunity).

This pilot program teaches woodworking, computer design and sales skills to small cohorts of homeless Boulderites in Bridge House’s job training program. The participants are paid for their time and labor.

Utilizing what would normally be considered waste wood, TreeOpp empowers people in need of job skills and training to transform this unwanted product into beautiful works of art.


While TreeOpp won’t be a permanent solution to either the emerald ash borer or systemic homelessness, it is an amazing example of the kinds of solutions the maker movement can create. TreeOpp has brought people together from local government, industry, the community, and the non-profit sector to find creative solutions for the challenges facing their community.

TreeOpp empowers marginalized people to create, to build, and to express themselves artistically. For me, that’s what makes the maker movement such a powerful force for good in the world. Everyone is creative. Everyone has something worth sharing. At its best, the maker movement empowers people to create.


What’s a maker movement story that inspires you? Share your favourite story with us in the comments below – let’s learn from each other’s successes and failures. Also, follow us on social media (FacebookTwitterInstagramYoutube) for the latest maker movement news, tips, and tutorials – let us help you create fun-conventional learning opportunities!

-Ryan Hunt, MakerBus Co-Founder

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