The data and recent research are clear. Tree equity is a critical aspect of a healthy community and a significant contributor to our effort to impede global warming. Connecting all Arlington residents to practical solutions that achieve a sustainable lifestyle is central to EcoAction Arlington’s mission. We’re continually looking for ways to accelerate our climate goals. Launching the Tree Canopy Equity Program as a spin-off from the original Tree Canopy Program is a logical next step. We aim to work towards parity in tree cover, to make the entire county more sustainable, improve health outcomes for all residents, and decrease factors that lead to climate change.
Dr. Howard Frumkin, a professor emeritus at the University of Washington School of Public Health, says, “proximity to trees is associated with a ridiculously broad range of health benefits. I wish I had pills that were this good for health.”
Most Arlington residents enjoy the best of both worlds — a suburban lifestyle and access to features of urban living. Many of those benefits are a byproduct of increased development and have come with costs, including shrinking open spaces and a loss of trees. We didn’t simply sacrifice a tree; we lost many of nature’s tools to capture carbon from the air, cool our homes and neighborhoods, reduce stormwater runoff, provide us with a sense of calm, and improve our well-being.
We can’t go back in time, but we can plant more trees. In 2007, EcoAction Arlington did just that by managing the newly launched Tree Canopy Fund. Fifteen years later, we’ve helped increase Arlington’s tree canopy, planting 3,400 trees at privately owned homes, apartment communities, and neighborhood common spaces. Recently, we researched differences in current tree cover across the county, revealing surprising and concerning data about several Arlington neighborhoods with low numbers of trees.
EcoAction Arlington found that disparities in tree cover were most significant for civic associations where minority and low-income people live. Research studies conducted by American Forests, a conservation organization, point to a similar pattern across the country. American Forests analyzed tree cover in 486 metro areas across income, employment, age, ethnicity, health, and surface temperature. The findings revealed that neighborhoods with a majority of people in poverty had 25 percent less tree cover on average than those with a minority of people in poverty. Organizations like the U.S. Forest Service also conducted research that appears to confirm the connection of low tree cover to income and race, finding a historical link to communities once “redlined’ by the government. Redlining, a former government-sanctioned program, systematically excluded Blacks and minority communities from access to mortgages, healthcare and infrastructure investments, including trees. The results of those policies are evident in the low percentages of tree cover in minority communities today. Some of the Arlington civic associations identified with the lowest tree cover are areas where “redlining” existed. These findings are significant for the areas impacted and for every Arlington resident.
Ian Leahy, vice president of urban forestry at American Forests, wrote in a June 30, 2021, New York Times opinion essay that “with temperatures rising and economic disparities widening, trees are indispensable infrastructure.”
Neighborhoods with the benefit of tree-lined streets and yards may not be concerned about lower tree cover outside their communities. Still, the impact of higher temperatures, more significant storms, and increased carbon emissions eventually affect every resident, ultimately making it more difficult for Arlington to become more sustainable. We must expand our tree canopy beyond the current ad hoc approach to make all Arlington communities environmentally sustainable. The recent Supreme Court ruling limiting the federal government’s ability to make regulatory decisions and the lack of movement in Congress place even more burden on local jurisdictions and states to advance environmental protection. According to a July 7, 2022, Washington Post article assessing the impact of the Environmental Protection Agency’s reduced authority, “experts say, local action is even more critical for the United States — which is second only to China in emissions — to have a chance at helping the world avert the worst effects of global warming.” The article further emphasizes the importance of independent local groups in helping local governments advance climate action.
Trees contribute significantly to our efforts to decrease global warming, and they deliver health benefits to those fortunate enough to live in communities where they are prevalent. Imagine finding out that a loved one’s death from heat exposure may have been prevented if more trees had been planted in their neighborhood. As unrealistic as that may seem, data shows a direct connection between more positive health outcomes for people in areas with sufficient tree cover. Harvard Medical School assistant professor Peter James found a 12 percent lower death rate among women who live around lots of green space as compared to those who don’t. And in a research study on the impact of trees conducted by several U.S. cities, the city of Philadelphia found they could prevent nearly 400 premature deaths from all causes by increasing tree cover.