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Improving Urban Tree-Canopy Equity a Community Collaboration

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Tuesday, June 7, 2022   

By Patrick Dunn for Planet Detroit.
Broadcast version by Emily Scott for Maryland News Connection with support from the Solutions Journalism Network

Sheila Roberts recalls walking through Cooper Plaza, the Camden, N.J. neighborhood she calls home in 2002, noticing something unusual: a newly planted, tree-lined street.

"Immediately upon looking at the street, I didn't notice the trash. I didn't notice the graffiti. And I didn't notice how unkempt the street was," Roberts says. "And it was because there were trees there."

Roberts learned that the new planting was the work of the New Jersey Tree Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to planting trees in the state's urban neighborhoods. She's since worked with the foundation to get over 200 trees planted in Cooper Plaza, and she says the resulting positive effects on the community's health and quality of life have been enormous.

"We were looking around for some miracle, and all it took was a tree," Roberts said.

Before completing that transformative work, Roberts and her neighbors in Cooper Plaza experienced the same effect as many Americans living in historically marginalized neighborhoods: a startling lack of tree canopy equity.

It's one of the many lasting legacies of redlining, the 1930s federal government policy of identifying neighborhoods of color as risky for investors. Redlining resulted in numerous forms of disinvestment in those communities, just one of which was that they wound up with far fewer trees than whiter, more affluent areas.

But east coast cities Camden, Newark, and Baltimore have managed to buck the trend by embracing strong state and municipal urban forestry programs over many years, resulting in more trees being planted in marginalized communities. Despite the odds, these places have built tree equity, in which low-income communities of color maintain healthier tree canopies than their counterparts in many other cities.

And that, in turn, has led to a host of ill effects for the formerly redlined neighborhoods. Maps of the hottest areas in major American cities often correspond almost directly to redlined areas on maps from nearly a century ago. Camden, for example, experiences an urban heat island effect that results in surface temperatures being far hotter than surrounding suburban areas, leading to escalated rates of heat-related illness and death. One major cause of this temperature discrepancy is a lack of a cooling tree canopy in urban areas. And that effect is even more pronounced in low-income neighborhoods.

Because trees contribute to cleaner air, air quality is also often lower in urban settings. That presents more challenges for residents with asthma and other respiratory conditions. Roberts says Cooper Plaza residents often felt like "prisoners in our own homes" in the summer, with no trees outside to help them beat the heat. What's more, that first planting she saw opened her eyes to the significant effect trees could have on residents' sense of community and safety.

American Forests recently released the Tree Equity Score tool, allowing users to analyze tree canopy cover and factors like race, age, temperature, poverty levels, and more in census block groups across the country. The tool also calculates a score for each block group, analyzing whether the neighborhood has enough trees for residents to experience their health, economic, and climate benefits.

Spending even a few minutes with the Tree Equity Score tool re-emphasizes the lack of tree equity in most major American cities. But it also reveals some cities, like Camden, that have made significant progress.

Cooper Plaza isn't the only Camden neighborhood that has benefited from a focus on reforestation in recent decades. Of the numerous Camden census block groups where the percentage of residents of color and the percentage of residents in poverty is higher than 50%, only one has less than 40% tree canopy - the baseline target American Forests has set for forested areas. (Any block group with less than 40% canopy is considered to have a "canopy gap.")

The New Jersey Tree Foundation's long-running efforts have played a significant role in Camden's success. Lisa Simms, the foundation's director since its inception in 1997, says the organization has "always come from a place of equity."

"Although we didn't know to call it that, it was for me a matter of: Where do we need trees? Where are they needed for all their benefits?" Simms says. "And that's why we focused on urban areas because you will walk into a city and go, 'My goodness. Where are all the trees?'I knew the real answer was, 'Let's see if we can't get residents interested in planting trees.'"

The foundation began the Urban Airshed Reforestation Program in Camden in 2002. The program aims to engage residents in applying for, planting, and maintaining trees in their neighborhoods, with the foundation handling marketing, education, tree procurement, and other support. One of its programs also trains residents to be certified "TreeKeepers" for their community.

Simms emphasizes that the foundation doesn't "target" specific neighborhoods in the sense that it won't initiate a planting project unless residents have invited it to do so. Foundation staff endeavor to make their presence known in neighborhoods by posting information in public spaces and leaving flyers on residents' doors. But in some cases, people and communities may get left out of opportunities.

"We're not intrusive, but we're still in the neighborhood, and they can see us," Simms says. "If they know anything about us - which, after all these years, most of the time they do - and they want trees, they'll give us a call."

Despite this limitation, the program has removed approximately 89,500 square feet of impervious surface to plant nearly 7,500 trees along city streets and engaged over 15,000 volunteers. Simms says the key to the foundation's work has been having "boots on the ground" - having staff out and about in the city, taking stock of the work to be done, and making themselves visible and accessible to residents. Interest and enthusiasm for the foundation's work have mainly spread by word of mouth, as residents like Roberts have noticed the foundation's plantings and requested projects in their neighborhoods.

"That opens the door and the conversation," Simms says. "Then you just have to follow up and do what you promised you would do, and be honest if you can't do it because that's how you build the trust."

Roberts says the foundation has helped turn residents into "stewards" in Cooper Plaza and other Camden neighborhoods, with outstanding results.

"I think the trees were the best thing that could have happened to the city of Camden, and it was time for it to happen," she says.

Staying cool in Newark

On the opposite end of New Jersey, Newark has also succeeded in advancing tree canopy equity - again thanks in part to the New Jersey Tree Foundation's efforts. The foundation's Renaissance Trees Program has served the city since 2006, planting nearly 3,750 trees, removing nearly 22,000 square feet of concrete, and engaging more than 8,000 volunteers. Nathaly Agosto Filión, Newark's chief sustainability officer, chuckles as she notes that the foundation has been around since long before the city even had an office of sustainability.

Agosto Filión says trees are a tool that addresses all four of her office's main priorities: advancing environmental health, quality of life, cost savings for the city and its residents, and access to green economic opportunities. She's also interested in addressing the city's urban heat island effect, as data shows Newark is significantly hotter than many nearby communities.

The city's approach to planting trees is a bit more targeted than the New Jersey Tree Foundation's. Using the forest analysis tool i-Tree, Agosto Filión and her staff have mapped out areas of the city with larger populations of people of color, lower-income people, seniors, and children, as well as those areas more prone to flood risks and poor air quality. Then they worked with nonprofits and grassroots organizations, including the New Jersey Tree Foundation and the Newark Green Team, to choose areas to prioritize tree plantings.

"Because we have such a strong ethos around climate justice and environmental justice, we are all very aligned in making sure that communities that are first and worst hit by climate impacts are the ones where we want to bring resources first and most effectively," Agosto Filión says.

The city is currently preparing to plant 400 to 500 trees over the next two years, thanks to a city tree fund that developers may pay into if they're unable or unwilling to follow city master plan stipulations for the minimum number of trees that must be planted with new development. says

"The most effective tree-planting strategy is to put them where people want them," Agosto Filión said, but also noted, "that's not necessarily an equity-first strategy." She says the residents who actively seek out trees tend to live in wealthier neighborhoods. In some areas, residents may be hostile toward tree planting efforts because they are annoyed with older trees buckling the sidewalk or causing other issues.

That's where community outreach has been crucial for Newark. The city has worked with community partners to encourage people to plant trees, adopt rain barrels provided by the city, and make other eco-friendly choices. The city has also launched the Newark Climate Justice Ambassador internship program in collaboration with the Newark Green Team. High school students intern with Agosto Filión's office, with the overall goal of helping young Newark residents and their communities become more aware of environmental justice work in the city.

"I find that the more you can do things that are hands-on and applied with folks, the more invested people are," Agosto Filión says. "That's fun on some levels, but it also builds that sense of stewardship. Every time I drive by a tree that I helped to plant, I feel a sense of pride that I was part of that little tree growing in that particular spot."

Growing Baltimore's tree canopy

Baltimore also has a lengthy history of efforts to improve its tree canopy. In 2007, then-mayor Martin O'Malley set a goal of doubling the city's canopy from 20% to 40% by 2037. The town is a bit behind that goal, but it's made progress; the most recent data shows that the canopy has increased to 28%. And along the way, Baltimore has made strides toward improving tree equity.

One significant component of that work is TreeBaltimore, an initiative of the city's Department of Recreation and Parks launched in 2007. TreeBaltimore acts as an umbrella organization for city departments, private organizations, and individuals working to increase the city's tree canopy. TreeBaltimore Manager Charles Murphy says the organization regularly convenes others who lead tree plantings in the town and procures most of the trees they plant.

"We kind of became this hub of information and resources, administering all the other groups doing the work," Murphy says.

Inventorying and monitoring existing trees is a vital part of Baltimore's approach to forestry. In 2006, the U.S. Forest Service and the University of Vermont piloted a new land cover map in Baltimore. And in 2017 and 2018, the city conducted its first street tree inventory, which mapped every single tree in a public right-of-way in the city, as well as empty tree pits (sidewalk cutouts where trees can be planted) and locations for future tree pits. A new inventory will begin next year because, as Murphy notes, data becomes "stagnant" quickly as new trees are planted and existing trees fall to development and storms.

The department has used inventory data and numerous other data sets to create a prioritization map identifying areas of the city where trees are most needed. It also does regular tree giveaways, but Murphy says those trees are consistently requested chiefly by residents of "neighborhoods we shouldn't be prioritizing," i.e., wealthier ones.

"What that taught us was that we need to focus even heavier on our planting efforts when it comes to street trees and opening up [tree pits] in the neighborhoods that do not have yards," he says.

As in Camden and Newark, Murphy says community outreach work is essential to increase the number of trees on private property in Baltimore and to ensure that residents don't "feel like we're coming in and dumping a bunch of trees and just rolling out." Ryan Alston, communications and outreach manager for the Baltimore Tree Trust, a forestry nonprofit in the city, echoes that sentiment. Alston says staff at organizations like hers have historically not been reflective of the neighborhoods they most need to serve.

"That comes with a history of mistrust and organizations coming in and doing what they want and leaving," she says. "I think the city has to make up for that and has to make sure that the organizations that are coming in are doing their jobs to not only do the work but make sure the work is appreciated and that it's understood why the work is being done."

Alston says the Tree Trust has sought to improve relations with local leaders in the most in need of trees and hire staff from those neighborhoods. The organization has launched a workforce development program that focuses on hiring returning citizens and those who haven't had past access to job training resources.

"We make sure that they're not only working with Baltimore Tree Trust but that we're setting them up to, if they have an interest, go work for a larger organization or some other organization in the environmental industry," she says. "We want to give them a launching pad for a career."

As Baltimore looks to the future, Murphy is skeptical of the usefulness of the city's 40% canopy goal. The city's 8% gain since O'Malley set the goal is both more and less impressive than it seems. The city made its biggest gain - from 20% to 27% - only two years after the goal was set, but Murphy says that's because of improvements in data collection rather than a significant increase in tree plantings. The city has added about 4% more trees since then. Still, Murphy says the net gain has been only 1% because the city lost about 3% of its trees to development and storms - a sobering number, but also one that's lower than the average rate of tree loss in other major cities.

Although the 40% goal has helped to stoke public interest in trees and led to the formation of organizations like TreeBaltimore and the Baltimore Tree Trust, Murphy says the city "probably should have a more realistic goal" for canopy growth. He points to Philadelphia, which has set a goal to achieve 30% tree canopy coverage for every neighborhood in the city by 2025, rather than a citywide objective.

"That's way more equitable," Murphy says.

Patrick Dunn wrote this article for Planet Detroit.

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