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Having trees lining up neighborhoods isn’t just for aesthetics — it’s actually keeping them cooler. A new set of data released by American Forests, the first nationwide Tree Equity Score data, reportedly revealed that tree presence in neighborhoods across the U.S. is strongly correlated to wealth and race.
In a world with rising temperatures due to climate change, trees have the ability to keep urban areas they cover up to 45 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than those exposed to sunlight. However, the number of trees fluctuates between any two neighborhoods. Nationwide, neighborhoods with a majority of people of color get 33% less tree canopy than majority white communities. In turn, wealthier neighborhoods get 65% more.
As Fast Company wrote in a recent article, American Forests “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.”
Through their research, the organization collected data from 150,000 neighborhoods in 486 metro areas that contain 50,000 or more residents. The group factored in data including tree canopy, surface temperature, income, health, employment, and race. They then generated a 0-to-100 score of tree equity, with 100 being perfect tree equity.
As aforementioned, the result that 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,” Jad Daley, president and CEO of American Forests, reportedly said. “It tracks very closely along lines of wealth and race.”
These communities, often called urban heat islands, are an average of five to seven degrees hotter in the day, and up to 22 degrees hotter at night. “We don’t just need more trees in America’s cities. We need tree equity,” Daley said. The data finally gives city leaders, nonprofits, and individual citizens the leverage they may not have had to make the case for tree investment in less wealthy neighborhoods.
Moreover, urban trees actually make streets safer, longer-lasting, healthier, and more pleasant. Trees can calm traffic and reduce vehicle speeds by appearing to narrow the width of the roadway. In an area where streets were widened and trees were not present, accidents increased by almost 500% within an eight year period, according to Vibrant Cities Lab. The presence of trees along streets decreases stress levels while commuting, and in turn, reduces the likelihood of aggressive driving habits.
Similarly, tree lined streets and sidewalks encourage residents to walk and ride bikes, rather than drive personal vehicles due to the reduced urban heat island effect. Street trees reportedly increase the number of people walking on sidewalks by creating a more pleasant environment, which also causes drivers to reduce their speeds because more pedestrians are present. Street trees also create a barrier between sidewalks and the road, which gives pedestrians protection from potential incoming vehicles. Moreover, people often walk farther on tree-lined streets because distances seem shorter when walking along greenery.