Woods in Lansing | Susan J. Demas
As the Pacific Northwest sweltered through a record-breaking heat wave last week, many residents here in America’s least air-conditioned city sought relief under the shade of cedars and maples in city parks. But in some areas of Seattle, that shelter was hard to come by.
“If you look at aerial photographs, north Seattle looks like a forest,” said Washington state Rep. Bill Ramos, a suburban Democrat who sponsored a bill the legislature recently passed to help cities improve their tree canopy.
“On the south side, you see nothing but rooftops and asphalt and not a green thing anywhere. It’s strictly a matter of socioeconomics and race.”
That disparity is not unique to Seattle. American Forests, a Washington, D.C.-based conservation nonprofit, released a nationwide analysis last month showing that low-income neighborhoods and communities of color have significantly less tree canopy. Those areas also are more likely to suffer from the urban heat island effect caused by a lack of shade and an abundance of heat-absorbing asphalt. Heat islands can be as much as 10 degrees hotter than surrounding neighborhoods.
“We found that the wealthiest neighborhoods have 65% more tree canopy cover than the highest poverty neighborhoods,” said Ian Leahy, the group’s vice president of urban forestry. “As cities are beginning to heat up due to climate change, people are realizing that trees are critical infrastructure. I’ve never seen as much momentum toward urban forestry across the board.”
In many cities and states, policymakers and advocates say they’re aiming to correct decades of inequities in urban tree canopy. They acknowledge how racist policies such as redlining have had a stark effect on the presence of urban green space, and that trees are important for public health. Some leaders have even pledged to use American Forests’ “Tree Equity Score” to target their tree plantings in the neighborhoods that need it most.
“People weren’t thinking about trees as these resources that provide a lot of benefits,” said Kevin Sayers, urban forestry coordinator with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “They thought of them as niceties, and trees followed money. There’s now a recognition that trees were not equitably distributed and maintained.”
Sayers works to help cities and nonprofits manage and improve urban forests. Michigan’s 10-year Forest Action Plan, which was drafted last year, calls for a neighborhood-by-neighborhood tree canopy analysis, with the goal of reaching equity. Sayers said he will work to incorporate the new tree equity data into that plan.
In many places, efforts to increase urban tree canopy are still in their early stages. Officials are conducting surveys, setting goals and making plans — while acknowledging the real work is still ahead. They say it will take time to build trust in underserved communities, scale up planting programs and change local laws to protect existing trees. But longtime foresters say political buy-in for such efforts has never been higher.
‘Nature’s air conditioners’
Trees provide important public health benefits, starting with the cooling shade they provide. A study published last year in the journal Environmental Epidemiology found that heat causes thousands of excess deaths in the United States each year, far above official estimates. City and state leaders expect climate change to worsen the threat.
“Trees are nature’s air conditioners, and we’re starting to talk about them as a real adaptation investment,” said Shaun O’Rourke, a managing director at the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank who also serves as the state’s chief resilience officer.
The state has worked with 20 municipalities in its program to fund climate resilience projects, and all of them have sought more resources for urban tree planting, O’Rourke said. Meanwhile, the Rhode Island Department of Health has incorporated tree canopy data into its health equity indicators, putting it alongside categories such as health care access and food insecurity.
“The data shows that Latinos and African Americans have a higher likelihood of dying after five days of extreme heat, and that’s an injustice,” said Cindy Montañez, CEO of Tree People, a nonprofit that works on planting and education projects near Los Angeles. “Planting trees is not about carbon reduction, it’s about saving lives.”
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