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…