By Adriana Navarro,
Special to the AFRO

Maisie Hughes was born in Washington, D.C., as was her mother. But, while her mom and uncles walked a street flanked by corridors of trees as kids, all that changed by the time Hughes was born.

Over the course of her mother’s lifetime, the tree canopy in their neighborhood had whittled away to nearly half of what it once was, Hughes said. 

American Forests Vice President of Urban Forestry Maisie Hughes. (Photo courtesy of Maisie Hughes)

There was no apocalyptic storm nor disease that wiped out the trees. Rather, it was the communities not having the resources to invest in their care, said Hughes, who now serves as the vice president of urban forestry at the nonprofit American Forests. She called this a design problem, as the areas that had the wealth and resources to invest in trees were able to do so, and the communities that didn’t fell behind in tree canopy coverage.

“It was because of disinvestment,” Hughes said. “A lot of people moved out of D.C. into the suburbs, and the city stopped investing in trees.”

In an effort to address equitable city tree cover, the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 allocated $1.5 billion to the U.S. Forest Service’s Urban and Community Forestry Program. On Sept. 14, American Forests was awarded $50 million of that funding to help frontline communities that experience the first and most intense impacts of climate change as they battle extreme heat.

“I think what’s really quite lovely is that you may never make the connection that the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 also happens to be the largest investment in climate in the history of the country,” Hughes said.

Tree equity is achieved when there are enough trees across an area to benefit all residents rather than only a subset of the community.

Nationally, communities of color tend to have 38 percent less tree cover and be over 10 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than their White counterparts; lower income neighborhoods have 28 percent less cover and are almost 7 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than their wealthier counterparts, according to American Forests, a nonprofit that aims to protect and restore forest ecosystems.

Studies have shown that living near trees can lead to physical, mental, emotional and financial benefits – benefits that residents of lower-income wards in the District may be missing out on. This summer, record-shattering temperatures reminded residents of another benefit trees provide: protection from the heat.

The organization’s Tree Equity Map shows that Wards 5, 7 and 8 – the wards with both the highest population of Black residents and population of lower-income residents according to 2020 Census data – hold most of the low-scoring neighborhoods in tree equity. 

In Ward 5’s Brentwood neighborhood, residents Roseann Williams, 70, and her husband Maurice Williams, 72, don’t see many trees when they look out from their front porch. A few saplings line the road, and Maurice knows of one large tree that has watched over the neighborhood since he moved there over 60 years ago. 

But the oasis of shade that the single tree creates hardly compares to where a small forest of old, towering trees shade southern Brookland a few blocks away.

The Williams reside in a part of Brentwood that has a tree equity score of 65, one of the lower scores in the city, according to data from American Forests. The current canopy cover is at 11 percent – a far cry from the target goal of 40 percent. 

Trees are sparse across Ivy City in eastern Washington, D.C. The neighborhood scored a 76 on the American Forests Tree Equity Score. (Photo by Adriana Navarro)

On Sept. 6, temperatures soared to near-triple digit levels. With nothing to shield the sidewalk from the persistent sun, the pavement was scorching hot, chasing the Williams couple indoors.  They chose staying in their front yard over taking their two small dogs out for a walk.

“It was too intense. Even the sidewalk was too hot for them,” Roseann Williams said. 

At Reagan National Airport, the first nine days of September averaged 93 degrees – the hottest average for those dates since records began in 1872, according to Brendon Rubin-Oster, a lead forecaster at the National Weather Service. 

For that same time period, Rubin-Oster said, the average temperature is typically 84 degrees.

Wards 5, 7 and 8 are some of the hottest parts of the city, according to Vince Drader, the communications and development director for Casey Trees. The D.C.-based nonprofit is one of a handful in the city that aims to restore the tree canopy in the city through cooperation with the area’s communities. 

To do that, the organization looks at areas with lower tree equity scores – a percentage that measures whether there are enough trees in a neighborhood for its residents to experience the health, economic and climate benefits that trees can provide – that have space for trees. This often means prioritizing Wards 5, 7 and 8 as well as where residents show interest in planting trees.

“We look for communities that have been historically neglected. Let’s say that they’re predominantly Black or Latinx,” Casey Trees’ youth program director Kelsey Desmond said. “If they are economically disadvantaged, we try to enter into those communities if they’ll welcome us, if they have a need and an interest in trees and [mitigating] heat [impacts].”

The organization will also receive funding from the IRA totaling $9.1 million over a five-year period for tree-focused projects.

When greenscape is replaced by cityscape, the vast stretches of pavement, buildings and concrete absorb and retain heat from the sun. This means that on a hot day, temperatures can actually be hotter in a more industrialized or developed side of the city than an area that has been able to invest in trees and shade.

On average, more fatalities in the U.S. occur due to heat than any other natural disaster – including hurricanes and tornadoes, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. The 10-year average of heat-related deaths in the nation, spanning from 2013 to 2022, was 153 deaths.

Casey Trees also highlighted D.C.’s Ivy City area as a potential greenspace that hasn’t been invested in.

Ivy City residents Lynn Miles (left) and Shae Scott (right) stand in front of the tree that grows in Scott’s front yard. (Photo by Adriana Navarro)

Here, rowhomes fight for space among an urban jungle of storefronts and businesses. And at the corner of Capitol Ave. NE and Fenwick St. NE., the smell of tar and burning tires comes from an unassuming brick building. 

Ivy City resident Shae Scott, 39, is a neighbor to the National Engineering Products Incorporated chemical plant, which manufactures sealants for the U.S. Navy.

“When you’re producing these types of products and you’re tearing up the air and stuff like that, I don’t think trees would last too long out here in this kind of environment,” Scott said. “Now, you have trees growing, but a lot of them there, they just don’t look healthy.”

One of the few trees in the neighborhood stands in his front yard. It stands as tall as his two-story home, a few pink blossoms blooming among the green leaves. The shade it casts falls over a lawn chair tucked away near the side of the house.

“My wife, she doesn’t want the tree. I do. I love the shade,” Scott said. “Without this tree, I’m empty.”