“Trees are not just scenery. They’re critical infrastructure for the health and wealth and well-being of communities. Distributing the cooling shade of trees more equitably across our cities is an absolutely essential strategy. We like to say that hashtag tree equity equals hashtag health equity.” — Jad Daley, President, American Forests
Cities: bustling havens full of tall buildings, busy people, and heavy traffic. They are hubs of new ideas and technologies, and the places where culture constantly grows and thrives.
What is something that most cities lack? Sufficient amounts of trees and greenery. With extensive quantities of concrete and a dearth of trees, neighborhoods within cities can easily become urban heat islands. These “heat islands” are marked by a lack of plant life and strong presence of dark cement, absorbing the sun’s heat and becoming lethally warm in the summers, which continue to grow hotter as Earth’s average temperature steadily rises. What’s more, these disproportionately occur in marginalized communities and communities of color. A look into history shows us that this is not incidental.
In the 1930s and 1940s, cities throughout the United States were divided to create racially segregated communities in line with Jim Crow laws. To force people of color into certain neighborhoods, maps of cities were drawn up, and the neighborhoods in which people of color were allowed to live were shaded in red, bringing about the term “redlining.” Banks would only give loans or sell mortgages to people of color who were purchasing homes in those designated zones. There were four different types of zones referenced throughout the redlining process: green, which meant “best;” blue, which represented “still desirable;” yellow, which stood for “definitely declining;” and red, which meant “hazardous.” To see what redlining looked like throughout California, check out this article with zoned maps of San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, and Los Angeles. People of color and low-income populations were relegated to purchasing homes and land in red and yellow zones, which were laden with sewage plants, polluting factories, contaminated water sources, and many more factors detrimental to environmental health. These neighborhoods, with an abundance of pollution and dangerous conditions, lacked the extensive green spaces and tree life of wealthier neighborhoods, a pattern that continues in historically redlined neighborhoods today.
Why is a limited number of trees in a neighborhood a problem? A study by Portland State University and Virginia Commonwealth University shows that historically redlined neighborhoods are hotter on average than neighborhoods listed as “desirable,” some by almost thirteen degrees, due to their lack of tree cover. Intense heat kills more Americans annually than any other natural event, and because redlined neighborhoods are disproportionately made up of people of color, this is an environmental justice issue, as well as a public health crisis.
Planting trees may seem like a simple solution to the issue of ecological inequity in urban environments, but gentrification goes hand in hand with creating more green space. By adding parks to an area with little to no green space, real estate prices within it rise, driving out the low-income residents and quickly gentrifying a neighborhood. How do we provide greenery for communities that need it, while not creating infrastructure that will ultimately drive them out of their homes? This balance will be a critical concept moving forward in urban ecology work.
Luckily, urban greening is not limited to the creation of parks. One way people have incorporated plants into neighborhoods is through community gardens, like the P-Patch program in Seattle, Washington. People can sign up to receive a plot in a communal garden space when it becomes available, and are able to use that space to grow whatever they would like. Recently, community gardens have become a big part of the movement to bring ecological justice to cities and residents who lack access to green space or the land needed to establish a garden. At the same time, community gardens address food justice, as providing land for people to grow fruits and vegetables increases access to fresh and organic food that some residents might otherwise not be able to afford.
It’s clear that the presence of trees throughout cities is a matter of equity and social justice, but working with existing infrastructures and systems of government can be a huge barrier to making change. Organizations such as the Baltimore Tree Trust are working to end tree inequity, planting trees throughout redlined neighborhoods and conversing with residents to learn their ecological needs and how the organization can most effectively address them. This grassroots work is critical to the success of urban greening efforts, as the people living in tree-scarce neighborhoods are the ones who can best speak to what those neighborhoods actually need. City officials must be involved as well, as they have the bureaucratic power to allow potential projects to move forward, but the voices of residents are equally important in the discussion and work. Our partner, Going Green Media, visited some of the greenest cities and greenest buildings to share solutions that are being developed around the world – and our partner, New Society Publishers, a leader in sustainable publishing, provides resources for urban architecture, urban landscaping, ecocities and promoting a sustainable future.
Urban ecology must be a main focus of the environmental justice movement, and the environmentalist community as a whole needs to recognize its significance in creating a greener and more just future for cities and the world.
Establishing parks takes extensive work by many parties and often involves a hefty financial investment. A great way to incorporate plants into life in the city is through simply having them growing in your home — or in some cases, on your home. Adding greenery indoors might seem daunting or challenging, but it doesn’t have to be!
- Simply bringing more plants into your personal space — whether a dorm, apartment, house, or offices — adds life and fresh air (with literal oxygen!) to the built urban environment.
- Research different types of houseplants, some have different needs than others, and it’s important to have one that suits your lifestyle!
- Research plants that can live in your climate, health benefits for your personal environment, and where you may be able to realistically find it.
- Yard sales, Facebook Marketplace, and even the sidewalk can yield free or low-cost gems, in addition to beloved local plant shops and organic nurseries!
How do we add parks and greenery to urban areas without pushing out the people who need it most? Recognizing the connection between more green space and gentrification is critical to combat inequity. Read this article by GRIST to learn about neighborhoods, segregation and trees.
- Check out this article on finding balance between greening a neighborhood and preventing gentrification.
- Consider your neighborhood — either the one you grew up in or where you go to school. What does green space look like there?
- Take a 10 (or more!) minute walk around your neighborhood to observe green space and any evidence of gentrification.
Who makes vital decisions around tree cover, green spaces, and city planning? Local governments greenlight projects and developments that affect residents. But residents play an equally important role in this process. YOU are the ones who need, use and benefit from parks and green spaces, and your voice must be heard.
Watch Steve Whitman’s TED Talk on “Shifting the World from Grey to Green.”
- Use this map to locate a historically redlined neighborhood in a city where you feel a personal connection (i.e. where you’re from, go to school, have family, etc.).
- Research the current condition of the neighborhood through photos and Google Maps. Has it improved since it was designated as a redlined neighborhood?
- What does it lack in terms of green space and tree cover?
- Examine the layout of the neighborhood to determine where green space or trees would fit best and how you can most effectively incorporate more plant life into the community.
- Focus on utilizing species that are native to the region, as that will benefit local biodiversity and flora and fauna populations.
- NPR “Redlining Linked to More Heat, Less Trees”
- Washington Post “Living Near Trees is Good For Your Health”
- “The Role of Trees” Baltimore case study
- Greening the Ghetto: TED Talk by Majora Carter discussing environmental justice in the Bronx and creating more green spaces in low-income neighborhoods
- How to Grow Fresh Air: TED Talk by Kamal Meattle discussing three common plants that can greatly increase respiratory health and oxygen availability for people living in polluted urban environments
- Greenbiz “Can We Green Cities Without Causing Gentrification?”
- Architectural Digest Milan’s Bosco Verticale
- Grist In America’s cities, inequality is engrained in the trees