Researchers find 'tree inequity' for communities of color

There’s a new research tool that shows how the number of trees planted in neighborhoods is a direct reflection of income and equity.

Researchers from American Forests found that with few exceptions, trees are disproportionality planted in wealthier and whiter neighborhoods. Redlining in the 1930s is what laid the groundwork for this inequality resulting in communities of color hit the hardest by a lack of trees.

"We’re not talking about scenery here. We’re talking life and death infrastructure," said Jad Daley, president and CEO of American Forests.

He says not having the right number of trees in neighborhoods is just as dangerous as not having stop signs or traffic lights.

"When you compare BIPOC neighborhoods to majority-white neighborhoods, ethnic minority neighborhoods have 33 percent less tree canopy on average and that’s transcending income as I’m not talking about lower-income communities of color. I’m talking communities of color at large," he said.

When you add the income factor and compare the top 10 percent income in a city with the bottom 10 percent, the lower-income neighborhoods have 41 percent less tree cover, according to Daley.

That’s why Daley and his team put together what they call a tool to fix this problem in a map showing communities that have proper tree cover through the Tree Equity Score (TES) Project. The TES examines more than 150,000 neighborhoods and 486 municipalities in urban America with at least 50,000 people.

Using a 0-to-100-point system, each score on the tool indicates whether there are enough trees planted in the community so people can experience what analysts call the health, economic, and climate benefits that trees provide.

Health experts say areas with more trees tend to be cooler and healthier.

"When you have trees, you can bring your temperature down somewhere between 2 and 10 degrees just by having tree canopy," said Suzanne Hansen, an environmental sustainability specialist for Allina Health.

She says urban trees help to lower energy use in buildings and filter out air pollutants.

"The connection between health and air pollution is very strong. The health impacts in places that have a lot of air pollution impact children, elderly, low-income communities, and on people of color […] you tend to see more asthma and allergies, which are all made worse by air pollution"

Dr. Zeke McKinney is a physician in the Health Partners Occupational and Environmental medical residency program and has researched this topic for several years. He says the health risks without proper tree coverage are dire.

"You’ll have a lot of associations with increased health events whether it’s cardiovascular or cerebral vascular, which things involving blood vessels or brain vessels like strokes, for example," he said. "Of course, you’ll see more heat-stress events such as heat stroke, people becoming more dehydrated."

In addition, Dr. McKinney says the lack of tree coverage can impact food safety in areas that are not as cool.

"Things like salmonella are more common with warmer temperatures, you’re going to see more vector-borne illnesses from mosquitos because mosquitos tend to thrive in warmer temperatures so, you’re going to more collection of those."

Experts like McKinney say planting more trees in vulnerable communities is critical to health.

"Historically, we’ve seen more development of highways and industrial areas in communities of color and lower socio-economic areas. I think we need to do more to reclaim some of those areas and plant trees there because having more trees is going to help with some of these issues," he adds.

American Forests hopes communities nationwide will use the data to get more trees planted in areas that need them most. Jad Daley says his team of experts plan to update the TES map as jurisdictions invest in tree planting to keep track of the progress.