By Jad Daley, President & CEO of American Forests
The American ideal of equal opportunity is being lost, and we must do better. It is unacceptable to see key equity gaps widen by income and race while our economy thrives. We need urgent action to level opportunity for all people, including the places we live. We can start with a new national commitment to achieve Tree Equity across America’s cities.
If you wonder how creating equitable tree cover across every neighborhood can help address serious inequities like public health, let me explain. Research continues to demonstrate that our health is profoundly impacted by the places we live. For example, low-income neighborhoods and communities of color generally experience higher levels of air pollution and suffer higher rates of related health impacts.
Trees can help address damaging environmental inequities like air pollution. America’s street trees and larger urban forests capture 822,000 metric tons of air pollution each year, a benefit needed most in where people are at greatest risk.
But far too often, the communities that most need this natural scrubbing service from trees don’t get it. That’s because, in cities across America, wealthier neighborhoods not only have less pollution but most often also have significantly more trees.
This pattern of tree inequity can also include communities of color, influenced by factors like “redlining” that have concentrated certain racial and ethnic groups by neighborhood. This analysis of Sacramento, California shows how gaps in tree cover sometimes closely correlate with race.
The solution is simple: we must create Tree Equity by dramatically increasing tree planting and tree care and targeting this investment so that every neighborhood can share in benefits like cleaner air, regardless of income or race.
The urgency to deliver Tree Equity becomes an even stronger moral imperative when you consider other benefits beyond clean air. This includes protection from hot weather, a health threat becoming far worse with climate change as shown by this research from Climate Central.
Living in a neighborhood without enough trees makes hot days much worse. Pavement and other built materials in such neighborhoods can become 50–90 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the surrounding air, creating an oven-like effect. This extra heat persists into the night when urban heat islands can make temperatures up to 22 degrees Fahrenheit hotter.
For low-income people who are less likely to have air conditioning and more likely to have pre-existing health conditions, additional heat is a life and death matter. During the 1995 Chicago Heat Wave that killed more than 700 people, research has shown that mortality was higher for people living in urban heat islands.
Creating Tree Equity can help address this danger. One study in Dallas showed potential to reduce death from extreme heat by more than 20 percent using tree cover to cool vulnerable neighborhoods.
Even for those who do have air conditioning, living in an urban heat island costs money. The cooling effect of urban tree cover saves $4.7 billion in electricity costs for consumers and vast carbon dioxide emissions from our atmosphere. Creating Tree Equity will save money for low-income households and help slow climate change.
Creating Tree Equity will help wealth formation in other ways. For homeowners, the presence of trees on and around their properties will increase property values. For local business owners, it has been demonstrated that tree-lined streets help boost retail sales.
For unemployed and underemployed people, more than 30,000 open forestry positions will need to be filled over the next 5 years, sure to grow if we commit to Tree Equity. My organization, American Forests, is working with partners across the country so the people who most need these opportunities can pursue new career pathways into urban forestry.
Fired up and ready for Tree Equity? Start with your own community. My organization partners with city leaders and local community-based tree planting organizations to advance Tree Equity in urban areas such as Detroit and Miami-Dade County. We know from experience that there are opportunities for you to help in your community by supporting local officials and organizations doing this work, including as a volunteer.
We can also ask our federal and state political leaders to do more for Tree Equity, with hopeful signs they are listening. In response to passionate advocates, the U.S. House of Representatives just recommended a 42 percent increase in funding for the U.S. Forest Service’s Urban and Community Forestry Program despite its proposed elimination in the President’s FY20 Budget. You can help policy efforts like this by signing up as a citizen advocate.
Trees are not just scenery for our cities, they are critical infrastructure that every neighborhood and person deserves — a basic right that we must secure. Working together to create Tree Equity will provide one tangible step forward to reclaim our national ideals, delivering health equity, economic opportunity, climate justice and more to help all people thrive. Let’s get to work!
Jad Daley is president & CEO of American Forests, as well as the co-founder and current co-chair of the Forest-Climate Working Group.