The amount of greenery on your street depends on the amount of green in your pockets, according to a new study.
You would have a hard time trying to convince someone that trees are somehow biased. Their sprawling roots, awning-shaped leaves, and tight trunks offer protection and comfort to everyone and everything, young and old. For humans, they help purify our air and water and provide protection in the summer from scorching heat.
But a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE shows that their distribution often depends on race and social class, a result of exclusionary zoning laws, racial segregation and the country’s deep inequality in wealth.
In the two year study, a team of researchers from Nature Conservancy found that 92% of low-income blocks in the United States have less tree cover and warmer average temperatures than high-income blocks. Inequality is most prevalent in the northeast, with some low-income blocks in urban areas having 30% less tree cover and average temperatures 4 degrees Celsius higher than high-income blocks. Five of the ten worst spreads are in Connecticut, where the most economically unequal metropolitan region in the country and known to be one of the most US states separated by residential segregation.
When it comes to tree cover, the biggest disparity in the country is in the Bridgeport metropolitan area, Connecticut – the metropolitan area with the greatest income inequality. Rob McDonald, senior scientist at Nature Conservancy, said it was no coincidence. The poorest blocks in the region have 54 percent less tree cover and are 5 degrees Celsius warmer on average. “For the most part, income inequality will always correlate with other major inequalities in health, environment and society,” McDonald told Grist.
In Connecticut, about 90% of housing plots are reserved for single-family homes, which, combined with policies that prohibits people of color in the state from owning certain homes and even living in some social housing projects, kept many areas separated by class and race. “Bridgeport is a perfect example of the problem we were trying to highlight,” McDonald said. “It is the product of exclusionary zoning that has reinforced a pattern of inequality forcing the poor to settle in dense areas.”
Across the country, low-income neighborhoods had 62 million fewer trees than comparable high-income neighborhoods. On average, tree cover was 15 percent lower for low-income blocks compared to high-income blocks, resulting in these low-income blocks having an average temperature 1.5 Celsius warmer. The study, which examined the amount of tree cover in the country’s 100 largest urban areas, which are home to more than 5,700 communities and 167 million people, is the first-ever national survey of tree cover and temperature inequalities – and she showed exactly what the authors expected.
“We knew this inequality existed, but we wanted to get the big picture because we know heat waves are getting more frequent and intense,” McDonald said. “So understanding which neighborhoods are the most vulnerable is the first part of planning for harm reduction.”
The research, McDonald says, aimed to explain how past economic and social policies continue to permeate even unexpected aspects of American life. Historically, racist policies have home ownership and economic mobility less accessible for blacks and Latinos forcing them to Heavily polluted and more densely populated neighborhoods – and made them much less likely to have generational wealth. Gaps in ownership also correlate with unequal tree cover, McDonald said, as people with private land have the power and ability to plant more trees on their property. Other cities with large tree cover gaps include Baltimore, which is home to a huge home ownership gap and incessant heat waves, and Boston, which served as flash point for residential desegregation for decades.
Beyond reversing the economic impacts of discriminatory housing policies, a more equitable distribution of trees could help revitalize neighborhoods. Research suggests that an investment of $ 17.6 billion in tree planting and natural regeneration could correct these disparities and benefit 42 million people by protecting them from heat waves – shown to cause the most harm to poor people of color – and lower air pollution levels while improving both physical and mental health.
“The United States faces a lot of problems, so I’m not going to pretend that forest cover is the biggest problem,” McDonald said. “But it concerns all of those conversations about climate adaptation, the risks of climate change, as well as the health outcomes and income inequalities that we have seen play a big role during the pandemic.”
“As the United States begins to talk more seriously about climate change from a political perspective, we need to think about adaptation and also think about how inequalities have amplified climate risk, starting with nature. in our backyards, ”he added.