The list of benefits that trees bestow on urban neighborhoods is long: People who live near more trees feel younger, are happier, and are healthier. But perhaps one of the most important factors in a world of rising temperatures is that trees have the ability to keep urban areas they cover up to 45 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than those exposed to sunlight. Yet the number of trees fluctuates between any two neighborhoods. In Austin, there’s a 20% difference in the amount of tree cover between high- and low-income neighborhoods. In Memphis, the hottest neighborhoods, usually with the lowest income and highest minority populations, are about 10.6 degrees hotter than the city’s average neighborhoods. Nationwide, majority people of color neighborhoods get 33% less tree canopy than majority white communities. Wealthier neighborhoods get 65% more.
These are some of the key takeaways from a new set of data released by American Forests, the oldest forest conservation organization in America, founded in 1875. Its Tree Equity Score tells a little-known inequity story: that tree presence is strongly correlated to wealth and race. The group isn’t just exposing the problem; rather, it’s a prescription for where exactly cities should plant trees to achieve greater heat equity—and at the same time, to improve air quality and create jobs.
The organization collects data from 150,000 neighborhoods in 486 metro areas that contain 50,000 or more residents. The group combined eight layers of data—including tree canopy, surface temperature, income, health, employment, and race—and generated a 0-to-100 score of tree equity, 100 being perfect tree equity. What emerged was a strong correlation between the amount of tree shade and socioeconomic status of the inhabitants. “We have this incredible disparity of tree cover—and it isn’t coincidental,” says Jad Daley, president and CEO of American Forests. “It tracks very closely along lines of wealth and race.”