Earth Day and every day, trees tell neighborhood stories in Black and white

American Forests, a national nonprofit environmental organization, reports that people of color have 33% less tree cover than white people in the United States.

Earth Day and its prominent campaigns to plant and protect trees highlight just how crucial trees are to a healthy environment. Yet, their absence is dangerously stark in Black neighborhoods, where asthma and heat-related deaths outpace the number of those health risks in white communities.

American Forests, a national nonprofit environmental organization, reports that people of color have 33% less tree cover than white people in the United States, and poor people have 65% less tree canopy than those in wealthy neighborhoods. In areas where 90% of the residents live in poverty, there is 41% less tree cover.

“Trees are a life-saving infrastructure, so a map of tree cover in almost every American city is also a map of race and a map of income,” says Joe Pannell, vice president of urban forest policy at American Forests.

The sun rises behind the skyline of midtown Manhattan and the Empire State Building in New York City and a blossoming tree on April 4, 2023, in Jersey City, New Jersey. Systemic racism that influenced redlining and construction practices resulted in fewer trees in Black neighborhoods. (Gary Hershorn—Getty Images)

Systemic racism that influenced redlining, greenspace planning, construction practices and mortgage lending resulted in fewer trees in Black neighborhoods. And while decades have passed since redlining became illegal, the effects of that land valuation system and the other discriminatory practices continue to harm Black residents on Earth Day and every day.

Tanisha Roberts, who lives in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, says she always notices there are more trees in the affluent areas of the borough. “It would just be nice to have more green in our neighborhood,” she says. 

And healthier, too.

A lack of trees has a direct connection to air quality and heat problems. The New York City Health Department did a study of all the heat-related deaths between 2011 and 2021 and found that Black people were twice as likely to die from heat issues compared to other ethnic groups. 

Neighborhoods of color can be 10 degrees hotter than other areas because of the significant amount of concrete and asphalt. “This phenomenon is due to the infrastructure of these environments. The amount of buildings, roads, sidewalks and pavements make these places hotter,” said Tom Ebeling, the community arborist at Openlands, an Illinois conservation non-profit. “Trees are the original air conditioning. They’re a huge factor in reducing the urban heat island,” he said.

The report from American Forests cites specific urban areas  – New York, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix and Los Angeles – as cities that need more “tree equity.” 

In Detroit and Newark, where the percentage of Black residents is 77% and 48% respectively, asthma rates are four times higher among children in the dense urban areas of those cities, compared to the more suburban areas. This is a result of a lack of tree cover in poor Black neighborhoods. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, in its serialized blog about the significance of saving trees, notes that trees clean the air by trapping carbon dioxide in their fibers. And there’s abundant research that shows dirty air exacerbates asthma.

The tree scarcity in Black neighborhoods is not accidental. Decades of redlining in Black neighborhoods led to fewer trees in Black communities. Redlined neighborhoods are where the federal and local governments built highways and concrete roads because appraisers deemed the land less valuable. That construction replaced most trees and plants in the area with heat-absorbing concrete.

Findings of one study reported the dangerous effect of all that cement “…Large roadways and building complexes gain heat during the day and, as the evening cools ambient temperatures, the retained heat is released back into the neighborhoods…. These evening temperatures are precisely the factors that can exacerbate excess mortality and morbidity.”

A city worker blows fallen leaves under a tree on Nov. 2, 2021, in downtown Chicago. (Joel Lerner—Getty Images)

A 2020 study published by Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (MDPI) shows the correlation between racially discriminatory housing policies and over-exposure to urban heat. 

“Recent studies describe the increased likelihood that those who are poor and [in] communities of color are more likely living in areas with fewer trees and poorer air quality,” the study says.

While historic and systemic racist practices led to fewer trees in communities of color, current circumstances also perpetuate the tree shortage. 

Pannell says that when developers decide to build something new in those neighborhoods, they tend to remove trees and other natural resources. “It’s easiest to do that in Black and brown communities,” he says, because there’s rarely any public outcry. 

And then there’s the role that homeownership and its ensuant feeling of empowerment play. In some large cities like Chicago, the local government cannot plant a tree unless a resident makes the request. “Very often renters do not feel empowered or do not know that they are able to request a tree for themselves, and a landlord is not going to request one,” Ebeling says. 

And census data from 2022 shows that most Black people, 55%, are renters. About 75% of white people are homeowners.

Despite the issues, there have been some substantial efforts to get more trees planted in Black communities during the past couple of years.

As a result of the Inflation Reduction Act passed in 2022, the Urban and Community Forestry Program, a government organization that works with state and community tree groups, received $1 billion to plant more trees in urban areas. The funding became available this month. 

It’s happening at the state and city levels as well. The Greening of Detroit, a Black-led organization, is partnering with the city to employ community members and is working to plant 75,000 trees across the metropolitan area during the next five years. So far, the group has planted 200 trees.

Philadelphia will hire its first-ever city forester with the goal of planting thousands of trees during the next 10 years. An organization in Austin, Texas, gives away free trees for residents to plant in their neighborhoods. In Los Angeles, the city partners with organizations such as TreePeople in an effort to get community members more involved in the planting and requesting process. 

That’s the crucial part of all of this, says Pannell. For any of this to work, the community itself needs to be a part of the efforts. 

“That is the only way it’s going to be sustainable,” he says. “Money is great but we need to make sure the people are part of this and feel ownership of it.”

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