An interesting article came across my inbox a few weeks ago. It was an interactive, visual narrative from the New York Times’ opinion section that demonstrated the difference between tree coverage in wealthier (and whiter) neighborhoods vs those that are less wealthy. The authors note that “neighborhoods with a majority of people in poverty have 25 percent less tree canopy on average than those with a minority of people in poverty…in the most extreme cases, wealthy areas have 65 percent more tree canopy than communities where nine out of 10 people live below the poverty line.” The case is true across the nation from Philadelphia to Atlanta to Portland, Oregon. This is termed “tree inequity.”
Tree inequity is problematic for several reasons. One, the physical environment we inhabit – including access to (or not) green spaces – is one of several factors considered in a person’s (or a populations’) social determinant of health. Social determinants of health are the aspects beyond eating right, exercising, and regularly seeing your doctor that determine how healthy a person tends to be. They include things like economic stability, educational opportunities, access to clean air, water and food, and as discussed here, the status of our neighborhoods and physical environments.
A second critical reason why tree inequity is troublesome is that tree canopy plays a role in mitigating urban heat islands. Urban heat islands are created in metropolitan areas where city surfaces like cement and asphalt more readily absorb, hold, and re-emit heat from the sun (as compared to rural, green surfaces). This “island” of warmer temperatures in cities can range from 1-7 degrees higher than outlying areas. Given that the US has already experienced some of the hottest summer temperatures on record, we can safely assume that urban dwellers, particularly those in neighborhoods with fewer trees to offset the urban heat index, are suffering the most.
Taken as a whole, the lack of tree canopy and green spaces in less wealthy neighborhoods, and the inequitable distribution of related consequences, creates a glaring environmental injustice.
If I’ve learned one thing in the past few years of being a life-long environmentalist, it’s that using “doom and gloom” or scare tactics regarding environmental issues almost never changes people’s attitudes or actions. So while these tree inequity statistics and their regrettable consequences are real and dire, I want to leave you with some hope and perhaps some actionable ideas.
- Brush up on the definition and importance of Tree Equity from American Forests, which states that “Tree Equity is a moral imperative, not just an environmental issue…it helps ensure everybody benefits from the power of trees to fulfill our basic needs, such as breathing fresh air and drinking clean water.” They have great articles posted here and here.
- Discover the Tree Equity Score in your community. This score uses indicators beyond tree canopy to include population density, income and employment levels, and more.
- If your community score does not land where you think it ought, consider what you might do about it, including building a case for the importance of urban trees (thanks to data from the Vibrant Cities Lab), and starting on their Step-by-Step Guide to Urban Forestry.
- Take inspiration from groups like Los Angeles’ “Tree People” who work to engage community members in planting and caring for trees throughout the city and in influencing policy-makers.
- Keep hope that the current administration and the US Forest Service are dedicated to improving urban forest equity as evidenced by the 2021 federal grant program to support urban forestry, and their “Ten-Year Urban Forestry Action Plan” which includes goals focused on diversity and equity.
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Betsy Parker, Nature Net Director
Karissa Niederkorn, Nature Net Intern