Rooted Injustice: The Link Between Environmental Racism and the Prevalence of Trees

On a hot summer day, many tree-filled neighborhoods enjoy plenty of shade.

However, access to shady outdoor spaces is far from equal. In many communities of color and low-income neighborhoods, concrete is everywhere—absorbing and trapping heat, making the sweltering summer dangerous for many.

Heat Islands and Under-Resourced Neighborhoods 

Due to climate change, cities are experiencing more hot days each year than ever before: since 2004, 12 cities have averaged at least 20 more days a year with temperatures over 90 degrees compared to nearby rural neighborhoods.

Spikes in heat are a result of the “urban heat island effect,” which occurs when cities replace natural land cover and trees with dense pockets of concrete, pavement, and buildings. Heat from the sunlight is then reflected from and absorbed by the built environment. With fewer green spaces to provide shade and fewer sources of moisture, the temperature rises significantly.

Research shows that historically disadvantaged and under-resourced communities, particularly communities of color and low-income populations, tend to live in neighborhoods with higher temperatures.

Across the country, in cities like Baltimore, Dallas, Miami, and New York, poorer neighborhoods and those with more residents of color can range between 5 to 20 degrees hotter in the summer—compared to wealthier, whiter neighborhoods. In the evening, temperatures can increase by as much as 22 degrees.

Living in an urban heat island negatively impacts residents’ health, resulting in heat-related deaths and illnesses, such as general discomfort, respiratory difficulties, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. If immediate actions aren’t taken to slow the impact of heat islands and climate change, heat-related deaths from 2031 to 2050 could be 57 percent higher in comparison to 1971 to 2000.

Redlining and Tree Cover 

One of the simplest ways to combat urban heat islands is planting trees. Creating more equitable tree cover is predicted to have a substantial impact on heat-related challenges.

Not surprisingly, the connection between redlining and tree cover is undeniable. In the 1930s, a government-sponsored home lender ranked neighborhoods in more than 200 U.S. cities by their perceived risk—based in part on racial criteria. This later became known as redlining—a process that cemented existing segregation and codified it in cities.

While redlining has been outlawed since 1968, the legacy of redlining remains in many forms of environmental racism—and tree cover is no exception. Formerly redlined neighborhoods have barely half of the total tree canopy cover of areas that were the most highly rated—white affluent neighborhoods.

On average, communities of color have 33 percent less tree canopy than majority-white communities, and neighborhoods with more than 90 percent of their residents living in poverty have 41 percent less tree canopy compared to communities with 10 percent or less of the population is in poverty.

Studies also discovered another layer of complexity: A lack of ecological diversity in areas that faced redlining. One study performed in Baltimore found that neighborhoods that were classified as “risky” for mortgage lenders in the 1930s now have smaller trees from fewer species compared to neighborhoods that didn’t experience redlining.

A lack of ecological diversity within a neighborhood’s treescape supports fewer insects, birds, and other wildlife. And without a proliferation of different types of tree species, a disease or pest can kill them all at once—as has happened in recent years with the Emerald ash borer, an invasive insect that has killed hundreds of millions of ash trees in the United States.

What’s Next 

To effectively fight climate change and its impact on lower-income communities and communities of color, planting a diverse mix of trees is critical. Trees reduce temperatures by providing shade-covered areas and increasing evapotranspiration—the process of trees releasing water into the atmosphere from their leaves, thus cooling the surrounding areas.

Unfortunately, making tree canopy coverage equitable can be challenging for cities and communities due to physical, social, and financial barriers. When adding trees to neighborhoods, city planners and urban foresters must navigate the built infrastructure to make room. This typically involves cutting into concrete, which is expensive. In fact, one expert says that it generally costs $300 to pull up enough concrete for a single tree.

In addition, the urban forestry industry is underresourced. Often, local governments only have one or two employees working in the department—and their role includes maintaining existing trees.

To help create more tree coverage, many organizations are launching urban forestry programs to bring new energy to the industry. In Denver, an organization called The Park People started TreeForce, a pre-apprenticeship program for incarcerated people to explore urban forestry career pathways. Los Angeles has a community-centered program called the Tree Ambassador Program, which focuses on closing the urban forest equity gap.

Developing programs like these will play an instrumental role in creating more tree coverage across all neighborhoods. One study from American Forests found that the United States needs to plant more than a half-billion new trees to achieve an equitable urban canopy across 500 metropolitan areas and 150,000 local communities.

American Forests offers Tree Equity, a data mapping tool that ranks and scores different neighborhoods based on whether there are enough trees in a neighborhood for everyone to experience the health, economic, and climate benefits that trees provide.

To learn more about environmental racism or how you can leverage the New Markets Tax Credits (NMTC) program to build affordable for-sale housing, reach out to us and join the conversation on social media.

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Published On: October 6, 2023Categories: Housing News