We Can Grow Tree Equity in Our Cities by Keeping Score

It’s time to ensure that all people benefit from what trees offer to the world
By Jad Daley, President and CEO of American Forests

Today marks a step toward climate justice. American Forests launched Tree Equity Score, the first-ever effort to map tree cover against such critical variables as race, age, income and heat risk in every urban area of the United States. Extreme heat, in particular, kills more people in our country each year than any other type of extreme weather does, and these risks are worsening rapidly with climate change.

Tree Equity Score shows where we are and aren’t sufficiently planting and caring for trees so they can equitably cool down urban neighborhoods. The dangerous disparities shown by Tree Equity Score challenge our nation to step up to create Tree Equity across our cities. Simply put, Tree Equity is about planting trees in the neighborhoods that need them the most so all people benefit from what trees offer to the world.

Trees are one of our most powerful defenses against heat, with the ability to cool our homes and neighborhoods by nearly ten degrees when the right trees are chosen and they are planted in the right places. Urban heat islands, where trees are lacking and paved surfaces are dominant, are an average of 5–7 degrees hotter during the day, and up to 22 degrees hotter at night. This extra heat is a huge health risk, especially for people in homes without air conditioning and those who have pre-existing health conditions.

These health risks are magnified by elevated air pollution, because heat cooks pollutants, such as car exhaust, into dangerous smog. This means urban heat islands, which often overlap with areas of higher pollutant emissions, create a synergy of heat stress and respiratory stress. Trees can do double duty in fixing this situation, given that trees naturally trap and deflect air pollutants along with providing natural cooling.

The threat of COVID-19 only magnifies this growing health inequity, because it reduces people’s ability to seek relief in cooling centers if their homes are vulnerable to heat, and because respiratory stress from air pollution makes people more vulnerable to COVID infection.

With this crisis rising, city leaders nationwide are launching special new efforts to take action by planting and caring for trees, and better protecting the trees they have. Federal and state government as well as private sector companies are also getting on board to help.

There’s just one catch: not all neighborhoods are starting from the same place when it comes to trees. You see, a map of tree cover in our communities looks a lot like a map of income — and even a map of race, due to institutional racism, such as the legacy of redlining.

This means city leaders who want to protect their most vulnerable people from the impacts of extreme heat must pay special attention to achieving Tree Equity — assuring every neighborhood has the benefits of trees for cooling our neighborhoods, as well as trees’ powerful benefits for cleaning the air.

That’s why my organization, American Forests, is leading an unprecedented effort to produce a Tree Equity Score for every urbanized area of 50,000 residents or more. Tree Equity Score maps each neighborhood within these cities using sophisticated data to map which ones are most lacking tree cover, and where lack of trees most acutely magnifies health and climate risks due to factors including urban heat island effect and health-vulnerable populations.

The initial Tree Equity Scores released today cover multiple cities and towns in Maricopa County, AZ (home to Phoenix), the San Francisco Bay area of California and Rhode Island. These initial scores, found at the Tree Equity Score website, consistently show a need to plant, protect and take care of more trees in socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods. The need is driven in part by a legacy of disinvestment in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods, such as federal redlining.

Tree Equity Score will enable state and local leaders, and their partners, to see where increased tree planting, tree care and tree protection are most urgently needed. This creates a roadmap for public and private investment, from dollars to volunteer hours.

As a way to help communities use the Tree Equity Score, American Forests has also developed an online Tree Equity Score Analyzer, using Rhode Island as the initial proving ground. This publicly available online tool allows the user to analyze how the Tree Equity Score for any neighborhood relates to specific properties that might be considered for tree planting and other urban forestry projects.

As an additional incentive for taking action, Tree Equity can also help slow climate change and ease household energy burdens. That’s because urban trees reduce residential energy use for heating and cooling by an average of 7.2 percent, saving homeowners $7.8 billion dollars and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Urban trees across America also absorb almost 130 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from the air annually.

Tree Equity Score calls us all to action — governments, companies, nonprofit organizations, civil society and individuals. From new government and corporate investment to people volunteering and taking action in their own communities, it is time to bring Tree Equity to our cities. So take a look at the Tree Equity Score, and then find your way to get involved. Each tree is one step closer to climate action and climate justice.

American Forests inspires and advances the restoration of forests, which are essential to life.

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