The Importance of Tree Equity & How It Impacts Our Neighborhoods and the Planet

Aug 10, 2023 Annie Cao

Trees do a lot for us, whether we realize it or not. They’re an essential part of any infrastructure and the environment. But unfortunately, many cities and neighborhoods don’t have enough tree cover, which has a negative impact on the planet. Because of this, organizations are advocating for urgent action to plant the seeds for tree equity.


image via San Francisco Chronicles


What is Tree Equity?

If you’ve ever lived in a neighborhood that lacks trees and greenery, you’re probably not tempted to take walks and when summer comes around, the heat is so strong that it’s difficult to stay cool without a high electricity bill. But interestingly enough, tree equity is directly tied to these situations.

Tree equity comes from a data tool created by American Forests. A Tree Equity Score specifies whether or not a neighborhood has enough trees to experience the health, climate, and economic benefits of trees. The score for each neighborhood is calculated based on population density, income and employment, age, ethnicity, surface temperature, and satellite data on tree cover.


image via WBUR News


How is Tree Equity Connected To Neighborhoods & Cities?

Recent research shows a connection between the amount of tree cover in a neighborhood and the people that live there. Typically, low-income neighborhoods where the majority of residents are people of color have 33 percent less tree canopy compared to places with a majority white community. Additionally, neighborhoods with the highest poverty rates have 41 percent less tree cover than wealthier areas. But how did this happen?

In the 1930s, real estate practices included redlining, which was a form of racism that created housing discrimination. As a result, neighborhoods with people of color were underinvested and neglected, leading to more pavement than greenery in those areas, among other consequences. These communities are also prone to heat islands, which is when the temperature is significantly higher than other areas due to insufficient tree cover. One study showed that about 5,000 people in the United Stars die each year from heat-related illnesses, which is likely connected to these hotter neighborhoods.


image via Resources for the Future


Why Does Tree Equity Matter?

Achieving tree equity would have several benefits for neighborhoods, cities, and the environment:

  • Provide fresh air. Since trees store carbon dioxide and give off oxygen, planting more trees would help filter the air we breathe.
  • Filter our water supply. When it rains, trees absorb stormwater runoff and the roots help filter the water before releasing it back into the ground.
  • Cool down urban neighborhoods. When there is ample tree cover, the shade reduces urban heat that comes from hot pavement and other factors. A tree-filled neighborhood can also lower air conditioning bills and other utility costs.
  • Improve mental and physical health. Green spaces are vital for boosting mental health – it’s easier to get out of the house when you live in a cool and shady area. It can be up to 10 degrees cooler under a tree, which lowers risks from heat-related illnesses.
  • Create more jobs. By including more trees in city planning, more people can start a career in forestry, whether it’s through urban forestry programs or infrastructure projects.

Adding more trees would do more than just beautify an area – adequate tree cover could potentially improve people’s quality of life.


image via Grist


The Future of Tree Equity

American Forests calculated that achieving tree equity would require planting and growing 522 million trees across urban American cities (according to the 2021 Tree Equity Score). To reach this goal, they plan to complete these steps by 2030:

  • Ensure that at least 100 American cities have passing Tree Equity Scores
  • Create 100,000 forestry-related jobs, especially for those in marginalized communities
  • Plant and grow trees in urban areas to create heat-resilient neighborhoods

Currently, several cities have begun working on initiatives to start working towards tree equity. For example, American Forests is working with the city of Phoenix and the Arizona Sustainability Alliance on a coalition of partners to create a program that combats extreme heat in the area.

Working on tree equity, along with other goals, such as walkable cities, green spaces, and more, are all ways we can invest in our future now (while keeping us a little cooler in the process!).


What are your thoughts on tree equity? Let us know in the comments!

Cover image via Houston Chronicle

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