Urban Areas In U.S. In Need Of Tree Equity To Mitigate Heat Island Effect

Urban Park            Photo: Fgrammen, Wikimedia Common

By Julia Fine, ODP Contributing Writer

US cities are spending millions in order to plant new trees, which represents “one of the best solutions cities have for fighting the ‘urban heat island effect’ in neighborhoods that are often blanketed with pavement and lack of greenery.” Its a solution to climate change too. Indeed, as The Guardian reported, Washington D.C. “plans to cover 40% of the city with trees by 2032,” and Seattle, which has already achieved its goal, planned to achieve a coverage of 30% by the year 2037.

But, as Valerie Yurks asks in the Guardian, are these plans equitable? As Eric Candela, senior manager of the Community ReLeaf program at American Forests, told The Guardian, “Tree equity is about more than just planting more trees. You can plant more trees but not achieve equity.”  This week, as fires burn in the West, there is a focus on tree planting because an ambitious effort to plant 1 trillion trees globally (1t.org) kicked off in the U.S. with many big corporate sponsors.  And while they say environmental justice is “central to their vision,” they also admit that they won’t be able to plant as many trees in cities.

Why This Matters: As we have reported previously, urban heat islands disproportionately affect Black neighborhoods due to a history of redlining and structural discrimination. And, as The Guardian noted, heat-related deaths are most likely highest among communities of color, who are heavily impacted by heat-related illnesses, including asthma and pregnancy difficulties. When prioritizing tree cover, cities should also prioritize racial and socio-economic equity in order to create true environmental justice for all.

Trees and Heat Islands

As NPR reported, “trees can play a huge role in the health of people living in cities,” as they help mitigate heat islands. Jad Daley, president and CEO of American Forests, emphasized to NPR that this is no small matter: “If you live in an area in cities that is seeing more extreme heat days, but you don’t have tree cover to cool down your neighborhood, that can literally be a life or death issue.”

But what Yurk calls tree-inequity is “starkly apparent” in many cities throughout the United States. For instance, in Baltimore, a certain high-income area has two-thirds tree coverage, whereas a certain lower-income area has only 10% tree coverage. And, this inequity often has historical roots, with “the neighborhoods most affected by redlining [being] the hottest,” in the case of San Diego.

Addressing Tree-Inequity

Many city governments and other groups are working to address this issue. For instance, in Seattle, according to the urban forest policy advisor, “the city’s urban forestry team conducted outreach and engagement efforts to intentionally engage people of color, immigrant, refugee, Native Americans and low-income populations to participate in the process, provide input, help shape policies, strategies and actions in support of the urban forest.” And now, the 1 Trillion Trees movement has launched in the United States, working to “‘remedy gross inequities’ by bringing trees back to urban neighborhoods and by placing the potential for job creation at the center of plans.”

But more can and must be done. Cities across the country must follow Seattle’s lead to work with communities of color to shape tree-related policies. And, given the high mortality rate of trees, it’s no easy task to create a sustained canopy. Nevertheless, cities must continue in order to eliminate tree-inequity amongst local communities.

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