Tree Inequity in the Hudson Highlands

All across the country, tree cover tends to be sparser in low-income neighborhoods compared to wealthier (and often whiter) neighborhoods. Living near trees provides countless public health, economic and environmental benefits—and people without adequate access to trees often suffer.

According to The New York Times, “Healthy trees trap air pollutants, which helps avoid 670,000 incidences of acute respiratory symptoms each year. Being in the presence of trees has also been found to improve youth educational performance, mental health, physical health and social connections. A well-maintained tree canopy may even reduce several types of crime and create economic opportunities, including careers that cannot be outsourced to plant and maintain those trees.”

This concept of “tree equity”—or, more appropriately, tree inequity—has been in the news a lot lately. As recent heatwaves hit the Pacific Northwest, neighborhoods with fewer trees are feeling the brunt of the impact. Temperatures in these areas registered 10 or more degrees higher than in places with more trees, which has unfortunately led to a disproportionate number of heat-related deaths.

And in a recent Opinion piece in The New York Times, authors Ian Leahy and Yaryna Serkez ask “Since when have trees existed only for rich Americans?” The interactive piece shares some striking maps, graphics and data that show just how unequal access to trees and parks is in cities across the country. Analysis of tree canopy data shows that wealthy Americans enjoy nearly 50% more greenery in their environments compared to lower-income neighborhoods, and this is a trend that persists throughout the country.

The Tree Equity Score Project, a project of conservation organization American Forests, is working to ensure tree cover becomes more equitable all across the country. They created a Tree Equity Score tool to calculate how close 150,000 neighborhoods in 486 municipalities in urban America are to achieving tree equity. According to their website, this score “indicates whether there are enough trees for everyone to experience the health, economic and climate benefits that trees provide. The scores are based on how much tree canopy and surface temperature align with income, employment, race, age and health factors.”

After releasing Tree Equity Scores for the first time this past June, American Forests found we need to plant 522 million trees across the country to achieve true tree equity—no easy feat. But, “doing so would support 3.8 million jobs. Annually, the trees would mitigate 56,613 tons of particle pollution and absorb 9.3 million tons of carbon — the equivalent of taking 92 million cars off the roads.”

Tree inequity doesn’t just affect large cities. It exists right here in the Hudson Highlands. For comparison, the eastern Hudson Highlands town of Putnam Valley has a perfect Tree Equity Score of 100, while a nearby Peekskill neighborhood, where 82% of the population lives in poverty, has a score of just 29. Newburgh and Beacon both have neighborhood scores as low as 42. In Newburgh, 90% of the population in this low-scoring neighborhood lives in poverty.

Local grassroots organizations Outdoor Promise and the Greater Newburgh Parks Conservancy are working to change this by bringing more trees to Newburgh. More than 4,000 trees have died in the city and without an active Parks Department, Newburgh has not had the resources to replace them. These groups are working to restore trees where they were lost and to plant thousands more trees in places they never existed. You can learn more and get involved with the Newburgh Street Trees project here, and Newburgh residents can fill out this tree survey to share where they would like to see new trees planted.

A parallel Hudson River Valley effort is unfolding in Yonkers. Groundwork Hudson Valley’s Climate Safe Neighborhoods project is working to understand the relationship between historic redlining and vulnerability to the impacts of climate change across neighborhoods in Yonkers. Recognizing that neighborhoods with fewer trees and green spaces are more susceptible to the impacts of climate change, they are compiling and mapping tree cover and heat intensity data to help identify and prioritize mitigation efforts for extreme heat and flooding. Learn more about the project in this comprehensive StoryMap and check out this interactive map that depicts the relationship between historic redlining, heat islands, tree canopy, and impervious surface in Yonkers.

Photo: Sara Cottle via Unsplash