Communities of Color Have Fewer Trees—This 'Tree Equity' Score Wants to Change That

The scores can guide policymakers on how many trees need to be planted in communities.

A man walking through a park

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Trees are essential to communities: Not only do they reduce heat stress by providing shade, but they also improve air quality. Unfortunately, there is an inequitable distribution of trees that leaves communities of color at a disadvantage. A new tool from nonprofit American Forests finds low-income and minority neighborhoods have fewer trees than wealthier and white communities.

American Forests' website states: “A map of tree cover in any city in the United States is too often a map of race and income. This is unacceptable. Trees are critical infrastructure that every person in every neighborhood deserves. Trees can help address damaging environmental inequities like air pollution.”

Given the other well-documented inequities that exist in our society—from access to health care to investment in schools—it’s hardly surprising that tree cover and access to nature also tend to differ sharply along racial and economic lines. What American Forests is hoping to do, however, is not just lament this injustice but provide communities with the data and tools they need to fix it. 

For the first time, the organization has launched its Tree Equity Score (TES) tool, which analyzes 150,000 neighborhoods and 486 municipalities in urban America and correlates tree cover with social and demographic statistics such as poverty levels, unemployment, percentage of residents who are people of color, as well as children and seniors. Those stats are then turned into a simple-to-understand Tree Equity Score rank from 1 to 100.

You can read more about the TES methodology on the TES website, but here’s a quick video overview of the concept: 

“Our Tree Equity Score will help make us all accountable and create action at the local, state and national levels,” said Jad Daley, president and chief executive officer of American Forests. “It shows us exactly where the problems exist, where we need to concentrate investment to solve them, and where we need to bring people together — all different types of people and organizations.”

Crucially, the tool does not simply provide a blanket score for entire cities or communities. Instead, it allows the user to zoom in and see the TES for specific census blocks, municipalities, city parcels, and even draw their own boundaries for a more customized approach.

The tool will also show how exactly the score was comprised for any given area. This should help citizen advocates and policymakers alike develop relatively granular, strategic, and targeted approaches to improving tree equity in specific areas that might have previously been neglected.

In fact, American Forests has taken all this a step further in some cities—developing a Tree Equity Score Analyzer which planners can use to not just understand where inequities exist, but map out and prioritize targeted tree planting plans that will make the biggest possible difference. Currently active on Rhode Island, and with a partnership with Richmond, VA apparently coming soon, the initiative is also looking for other cities interested in rolling up their sleeves and tackling this topic. 

Given the environmental movement in general, and tree/forest/conservation organizations in particular, have not always had a reputation for understanding social, racial, and economic inequity, it’s good to see American Forests engaging on this topic. It’s also good to see it is already thinking about unintended consequences—namely the fact that tree plantings can also run the risk of exacerbating trends like gentrification and rising cost of living: 

“We recognize that planting trees in neighborhoods can exacerbate gentrification. It can increase property values, making it hard for people to pay their rent or mortgage. It can even lead to displacement. People of color and those who have low incomes often are the hardest hit by gentrification.”

However, somewhat logically, the organization argues that this is exactly why a more targeted and equitable approach is needed—investing money exactly where it is needed most, and striving hard for a world where trees are not seen as a marker of racial, economic, or social divides: 

“Tree Equity scores can be used to make strategic investments in neighborhoods without displacing the most socioeconomically disadvantaged. They also can be used to generate support for policies that prevent or mitigate gentrification (e.g., publicly subsidized housing, community land trusts and property tax rebates). American Forests designed Tree Equity Score to ensure every neighborhood, regardless of socioeconomic status, has adequate tree canopy. This would mean that one neighborhood wouldn’t present a tree canopy advantage over another.”
View Article Sources
  1. "Tree Equity Score." American Forests.