Conservation Group Introduces Tree Equity Score to Highlight Environmental Racism

Children cool off in Crown Fountain in downtown Chicago.

Chicago is one of the U.S. cities most impacted by unequal access to trees. Scott Olson / Getty Images

A new initiative is highlighting another branch of environmental racism and classicism: equal access to trees.

Conservation organization American Forests launched its first calculations for what it calls a Tree Equity Score June 22. This score evaluates cities and towns based on who has access to tree cover, and it found that low income and minority communities in the U.S. are less likely to be shaded than wealthier, majority-white ones. As the climate crisis makes urban heat waves more dangerous than ever, this is a serious environmental injustice.

“This country is denying life and death infrastructure to people based on income and race,” American Forests President and CEO Jad Daley said in a press release. “That’s morally insupportable.”

The Tree Equity Score evaluates neighborhoods on a scale of zero to 100, with 100 being total Tree Equity. The scores are based on the following:

  1. Tree canopy
  2. Population density
  3. Income
  4. Employment
  5. Surface Temperature
  6. Race
  7. Age
  8. Health

According to American Forests’ findings, U.S. neighborhoods with a majority of people of color have 33 percent fewer trees than majority white neighborhoods, while neighborhoods that are 90 percent or more low income have 41 percent fewer trees than neighborhoods where only 10 percent or less of the residents live in poverty.

This is a serious problem, because trees are an important natural solution to the “urban heat island effect,” in which an urban environment can increase temperatures by five to seven degrees Fahrenheit during the day and as much as 22 degrees Fahrenheit at night. This effect already harms the health of vulnerable people, especially children and the elderly, and disproportionately impacts poor and minority communities. And the climate crisis is already making it worse.

Trees, however, can counteract this problem. The 100 feet surrounding a tree can be around three degrees Fahrenheit cooler than the rest of the city, The Guardian pointed out. Trees have other health benefits as well, since they remove particulate matter and can therefore reduce air pollution, another problem that disproportionately impacts low income and non-white communities.

To reach its conclusions, American Forests looked at data from 3,810 municipalities, including 150,000 neighborhoods and 486 cities with populations of 50,000 or more. They also proposed solutions at both the national and local levels.

Nationally, the organization recommended the planting of 522 million trees. This would have the added benefits of:

  1. Creating 3.8 million jobs.
  2. Removing 9.3 million tons of carbon a year from the atmosphere.
  3. Mitigating 56,613 tons of particle pollution a year.

Locally, the organization pinpointed the cities of 500,000 or more most likely to benefit from more tree cover. The top 20 include major urban areas like Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Portland, Oregon and San Diego.

Part of the broader solution means changing how trees are perceived in the urban environment, American Forests’ vice president for urban forests Ian Leahy told The San Diego Union-Tribune.

“One of the narrative battles we fight is trying to get trees perceived as fundamental infrastructure, like sewer lines or roads,” he said. “There is a direct relationship with neighborhoods that were redlines, and those with low tree canopy cover today.”

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