The effects of the decades-long systematic denial of mortgages to people of color, called redlining, are undeniably visible across the country. One effect has been the persistence of poverty in predominantly Black communities across the United States. Another is a distinct lack of tree cover in these communities. For the first time, the inequality in neighborhood vegetation has been quantified through the Tree Equity Score, developed by the nonprofit conservation organization American Forests.
Assessing nearly 500 municipalities representing more than 70 percent of the U.S. population, staff at American Forests found that neighborhoods consisting mostly of people of color have an average of one-third less tree canopy than majority white communities.
The prevailing problem with having too few trees in an urban area is the heat. Some neighborhoods have so much exposed concrete absorbing sunshine that they become heat islands, which can be up to 10 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than nearby areas with natural cover. One study found that urban heat islands can experience warming up to twice as strong as that caused by global warming.
In the face of elevating heat, the Tree Equity Score opens new opportunities for effective planting. Its tally puts an exact number on the trees needed to achieve equity amongst neighborhoods, leading to better health and livability. American Forests has calculated a total of 522 million trees needed nationwide, but not planted just anywhere. The online, publicly-accessible map shows exactly where cities need to plant trees — the goal, after all, is community uplift through equity.
“We don’t just need more trees in America’s cities. We need tree equity,” Jad Daley, president and CEO of American Forests, told Fast Company.
How exactly would the nation benefit from planting over 500 million trees? American Forests outlined the benefits, including over nine million tons of carbon absorbed each year, equivalent to 92 million cars removed from the road. Communities across the nation would be able to mitigate over 56,000 tons of particle pollution each year as well, the organization announced in a press release.
As communities and cities, regions and states set about planting trees, they would create almost four million jobs in the process, American Forests estimated, notably in neighborhoods that tend to have the highest unemployment rates.
Putting a monetary value on savings, the nonprofit claims urban tree equity would save the nation over $5 billion each year through the climate, air quality and water services trees provide, not to mention an appreciation in property values (which could result in more Black Americans build intergenerational wealth, long denied to many families) along with more recreational opportunities.
Some cities are already leading the way to greater equity through green infrastructure. Earlier this year, with support from the new data, Phoenix became the first city in the U.S. to pledge to achieve tree equity. Scores, such as the one available on the American Forests site, helped persuade the city council to take that step in April. As a whole, Phoenix has a Tree Equity Score of 80 out of 100, but individual communities can vary from 83 to 26.
Tucson is also leading the way by using tree equity to guide investments in urban forestry and stormwater management, American Forests reported. Phoenix and Tucson were among the pilot cities for the Tree Equity Score.
How can other cities follow Arizona’s lead? With applications from planning to fundraising to policymaking, the Tree Equity Score gives detailed insight into each census block group within a metropolitan area, as American Forests notes on its website. One block group in Phoenix’s Avondale community, for example, has a score of 29. Factoring into that score include a canopy cover of three percent (with an 18 percent goal), a high number of children, a 16 percent unemployment rate, high temperatures and poverty. Just east of that block group, still in Avondale, neighbors enjoy a score of 85, with nine percent canopy cover, two percent unemployment, lower temperatures and minimal poverty.
American Forests has recommended that localities use the nonprofit’s detailed Tree Equity Scores to estimate and compare the climate and health impacts of different planting scenarios. Each city, community and neighborhood are different, needing a unique strategy for planting. In a press release, American Forests names Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles and Philadelphia among the cities that would benefit the most from taking action on tree equity.
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