Trees are increasingly important to communities facing climate-related challenges, but their benefits are not distributed equally. New federal funds for planting trees are giving local governments the opportunity to correct past harms, learn from previous mistakes, and advance equity.
Passed in August 2022, the Inflation Reduction Act made $1.5 billion ($150 million annually) available for tree planting over the next 10 years. That’s five times more than what the US Department of Agriculture’s Urban and Community Forestry Program typically receives in a year. Combined with a recent executive order to further support underserved communities, this new federal funding gives cities both a dedicated funding source to support their tree canopies and a clear directive to advance racial equity and nature-based solutions to fight the climate crisis.
Trees and other vegetation provide cooling benefits by creating shade and reducing surface temperatures. They mitigate urban heat islands, contribute to energy conservation, and improve air quality while storing carbon dioxide, a primary driver of climate change. Leaf canopies improve water quality by reducing rainwater runoff, and planting and maintaining trees can create jobs.
But discriminatory policies and practices have limited tree canopies in some communities. Areas labeled as high risk for bank loans in the 1930s tend to have the smallest tree canopies today. Maps depicting tree cover in cities across the country often closely reflect race and income maps; higher-income, whiter communities often have more trees than neighborhoods with lower incomes and more people of color.
Stakeholders are increasingly recognizing the need to examine tree equity and tree-planting programs that may be well intentioned but can inadvertently contribute to socioeconomic and racial inequities. Efforts to significantly expand tree planting haven’t always had the intended results, but they can help city officials discern how to effectively spend this new influx of funds.
How can cities ensure tree-planting initiatives succeed?
Four considerations can help communities administer tree-planting programs in ways that advance climate action, environmental justice, public health, and racial equity outcomes.
- Work with communities to assess their needs and preferences
To design and implement informed, effective, and equitable tree-planting initiatives, cities must understand a community’s risks, opportunities, and preferences. Yet many cities don’t conduct vulnerability assessments before planning.
Without community outreach and partnership to ensure risks are carefully considered and benefits are distributed equitably, greening efforts may result in neighborhood-level gentrification, defined in this case as an increase in the median sales price of single-family homes. Increased property values from greening aren’t automatically negative, but understanding residents’ opinions is necessary to ensuring they share in decisionmaking and the benefits of trees.
Community members have different preferences and perceptions of trees and green space, which can be heavily informed by culture and lived experiences. In Baltimore, as a result of other disinvestments, some residents associate trees with crime, seeing them as a place to hide or deal drugs. Intentional community engagement, and in some cases education, can help bridge gaps between risk assessments and community preferences.
- Choose the right trees for the right places
A tree-planting initiative can only succeed if the trees planted are well suited to the environment and tolerant of changes in temperature extremes, drought, storms, and flooding. Sufficiently mature native trees from local nurseries that are already acclimated to the region are ideal. Otherwise, if the wrong tree is planted in the wrong place at the wrong time, the tree is at a higher risk of dying. In Los Angeles, susceptibility to disease, a lack of sufficient nutrients, and exposure to vandalism and neglect threatened the health of planted trees.
Trees placed incorrectly can result in roots pushing up sidewalks or branches becoming hazards in relation to overhead wires or passing traffic. And trees that require seasonal leaf cleanup or regular trimming may not appeal to some residents. Well-researched and community-informed plans can help avoid these issues and ensure communities can reap the maximum benefits of trees.
- Allocate sufficient resources for ongoing tree maintenance
Trees deliver benefits most effectively once they reach maturity, but some trees reach maturity decades after they’re planted. That’s why ongoing efforts to nurture and maintain trees are critical.
Without a clear commitment to tree maintenance, residents who are mistrustful of the local government may worry that trees will be neglected by the city. Cities that incentivize tree plantings on private properties will gain less traction from residents who fear falling branches and water pipe damage or don’t want to bear the sole responsibility for maintenance.
In addition, underfunded parks and recreation departments tend to oversee tree-planting initiatives, and they’re often some of the first departments to have their budgets reduced. And with tree maintenance requiring collaboration across multiple private and public agencies, these agencies may lack the time and resources needed to centralize efforts.
More dedicated funding for tree maintenance would create opportunities for living-wage jobs, increase communities’ confidence in tree-planting plans, and help stakeholders navigate interorganizational collaboration.
- Ensure tree-planting goals complement other land-use plans and produce cobenefits for individuals and communities
Trees need space, and planting initiatives may not align with cities’ other land-use plans. In Boston, the city’s tree protection ordinance reportedly sometimes conflicts with transit or open-space goals. In Philadelphia (PDF), officials created complete streets manuals (containing guidance for safe, multipurpose streets) and green streets manuals (containing standards for green stormwater infrastructure) in separate departments and several years apart. Despite efforts to make the manuals complement each other, contradictory guidance has caused confusion among some professionals. Cities may also question how to align tree canopy goals with housing development plans to accommodate growing populations.
Different government offices manage forestry, transportation, utilities, housing, and economic development. With out a chief resilience officer or other city official who works across departments, environmental plans are often created and executed in siloes. Better coordination across sectors and reconciled guidance for housing, transit, green spaces, and other community assets can increase efficiency and avoid contradictions. They can also maximize cobenefits for residents and their broader communities, such as stormwater management improvements, energy bill reductions, and quality jobs.
The Inflation Reduction Act’s unprecedented funding for tree planting offers cities an opportunity to advance goals related to environmental justice, climate resilience, and racial equity. A community-informed and thoughtfully executed investment in trees that factors in current and historical inequities and a changing climate can have long-term benefits for communities, the economy, and the planet.