A new study shows that Baltimore is one of 15 U.S.cities with great tree disparity. (Courtesy Photo)

By Deborah Bailey
Special to the AFRO

Have you ever looked for a large cool tree to rest for a moment in the shade in a core-urban neighborhood? How long did it take you to find one?

As the July heat soars in Baltimore, many are asking that question. American Forests, the oldest conservation organization in the U.S. has named Baltimore one of 15 cities with the greatest disparity in tree cover between low income and wealthier communities in the nation.

“Trees are more than scenery for the neighborhood,” said American Forests CEO, Jad Daley who commissioned the Tree Equity Register. “This is a life and death issue for a community,” Daley added.

American Forests recently issued a Tree Equity Score Index, demonstrating low-income urban neighborhoods have up to 40 percent less tree cover than communities where only 10 percent of residents live below the poverty level.

Lack of tree cover leads to a dangerous “urban heat island effect” and increased temperatures of five to seven degrees during the day and up to a 22 percent difference in temperature at night. Vulnerable populations in core urban settings are particularly at risk for disparate health, environmental and economic impacts due in part to lack of needed tree cover.  

“This is another example of systemic racism that has plagued communities of color,” said Dr. Gail C. Christopher, executive director of the National Collaborative for Health Equity.

The National Tree Equity scores reveal an alarming pattern of inequity regarding how trees are distributed in low income and communities of color vs. white communities.  Neighborhoods where most residents are people of color have one-third less tree cover than wealthier White communities – regardless of the income of the Black residents.  

Daley said cities across the United States are responding to the tree equity crisis. American Forests currently partners with coalitions in Phoenix, Detroit and Boston among others to move toward “tree equity” between predominately White and communities of color in those cities.

“Phoenix was one of our pilot cities. We showed the Tree Equity index to city leaders in April where the city council voted to achieve tree equity by 2030,” Daley said.

The organization has made inroads in Baltimore through the Baltimore Tree Trust, a nonprofit organization that has planted more than 9,500 trees in the city over the past decade.

“Our Trees for Public Health project asphalt and concrete that overheat city streets and replacing them with trees,” said Bryant Smith, Executive Director of the Baltimore Tree Trust.

The organization’s Trees for Public Health Project has implemented successful planting projects in The Elderberry Neighborhood on the city’s West side as well as seven other neighborhoods in the Harris Creek Watershed.

Smith and Daley both affirm tree equity is an environmental, health and economic issue for communities. Both see the economic impact of growing and planting trees in urban communities to close the gap between tree cover in America’s inner-cities.  

“Part of the job opportunity in influencing cities to adopt a tree equity agenda is to create tree nurseries in the city,” said Daley.

“In cities like Detroit, we have been able to turn vacant lots into urban tree nurseries and create an economic engine and career paths,” he added.

“I learned a lot by becoming a forester”, said Smith who came to the Tree Trust through his work with the US Forestry Service.

“But the job is so much more than planting trees. I want kids to see all the opportunities out there.”

You can find the tree equity index for any neighborhood in the country here: https://treeequityscore.org/map

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