Finding ‘Tree Equity:’ New Analysis Shows Neighborhoods That Need More Trees

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Baltimore needs more than 570,000 new trees to reach “tree equity,” or the number of trees required for every neighborhood to enjoy the environmental and health benefits of greenery, according to a national nonprofit conservation organization. 

American Forests recently published “Tree Equity Scores” for 150,000 neighborhoods across the country to highlight the inequitable distribution of tree canopy in urban areas.

A score of 100 represents tree equity.

Baltimore scored 84, Annapolis scored 86 and Washington, D.C. scored 91. Montgomery County scored 96, the highest tree equity score among urban and suburban areas in Maryland. The lowest score for an urban-suburban area in Maryland is 73 for Stevensville in Queen Anne’s County. 

But some neighborhoods scored far lower than their larger municipalities.

A stretch of downtown Silver Spring in Montgomery County received a score of 60.

Broadway East is one of Baltimore’s hottest and poorest neighborhoods — home to 90% people of color and more than 50% in poverty — with a tree equity score of around 60 and 10% tree cover; some blocks in the neighborhood had a score as low as 50. At the same time, Roland Park and nearby neighborhoods — comprised of around 15% people of color and 5% of people in poverty — have tree equity scores of 100, highlighting disparities across the city. 

The tree equity scores are calculated by comparing an area’s tree canopy with demographic data such as surface temperature, population density, income, employment and race, said Chris David, vice president of geographic information system and data science for American Forests. 

“Too often, a map of tree canopy coverage is also a map of race and income,” David said. “Poor communities have less trees and communities of color have less trees. The purpose of this map was to highlight that disparity and provide opportunities for cities to right that wrong by targeting those neighborhoods that have the lowest score.” 

The wealthiest neighborhoods in Baltimore have 80% more tree canopy than the city’s poorest neighborhoods, David said. And the coolest neighborhoods in Baltimore have almost three times more tree canopy than the hottest neighborhoods, he said. 

Trees can play a significant role in the health of people, as tree covers provide shade and help cool neighborhoods. Lower temperatures also mean lower energy consumption and electricity bills. 

Enough trees can prevent an urban area from becoming a “heat island” — or the phenomenon that urban areas tend to have higher temperatures because they have more buildings, concrete sidewalks and asphalt streets, which absorb sunlight’s heat more than forests and farmland. 

Urban heat islands are 5 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer during the day, according to American Forests. 

Nationwide, wealthy neighborhoods have an average of 65% more tree canopy than high-poverty neighborhoods, David said. And neighborhoods with extremely low minority populations have almost twice the tree canopy than those with high minority populations, he added. 

Inequities in tree canopy cover come from historic redlining policies and continued disinvestment in those communities, David said. But with recent bills that passed the General Assembly this year, more green space in Maryland is underway. 

One is the Tree Solutions Now Act of 2021, which established a state goal of planting 5 million trees within the next decade. It also aims to plant at least 500,000 of those trees in “underserved areas,” and creates a “5 Million Tree Program Coordinator” position within the Maryland Department of the Environment to oversee the initiative. The bill went into effect on June 1. 

This tree planting goal originally was part of the Climate Solutions Now Act of 2021. But when that bill stalled in the House, its sponsor Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) tacked the tree-planting program onto another bill and renamed it “Tree Solutions Now Act of 2021,” a nod to his frustration with the pace of the omnibus climate bill. 

“For people who live in urban areas, there is a lot more pollution from more automobiles and power plants nearby,” Pinksy said. “We owe it to them to try to remedy that as effectively as we can … we have to be very conscious of that. Trees absorb carbon dioxide and will bring some green space back to urban areas that have been sort of paved over.” 

Empty houses in West Baltimore could be torn down to create more green spaces and tree canopy, Pinksy said. The Tree Solutions Now Act is meant to bolster community groups that already have tree planting programs which can hire local people to take care of the additional trees, Pinsky said. “It’s possibly a job creator too.” 

The American Forests report estimates that Maryland would need to plant about 5.5 million trees to bring tree equity to all neighborhoods.

Another bill enacted this year requires the Maryland Department of Transportation to replace trees removed during state highway construction by planting a comparable number in the same community. First tree replacements are to be done in communities suffering from environmental justice issues or the “heat island” effect. 

Communities such as Langley Park and Long Branch in Montgomery County depend heavily on public transit and suffer from the “heat island” effect as well as localized air pollution, said Del. Lorig Charkoudian (D-Montgomery), who sponsored the tree replacement bill. In those communities, trees were cut down to make way for building the Purple Line light rail project but the trees were not replaced, she said. 

“The whole region is going to benefit from the Purple Line, but the people who live along it are going to take more of the burden, and it’s not okay for them to also not have any trees,” Charkoudian said. 

It is also important, she said, to work directly with community leaders in the neighborhoods where the trees are being planted.

“Sometimes when you’re trying to fix a problem, it’s easy to go — ‘Okay, let’s just get all the trees out there’ — but if you’re not doing it in a way that’s honoring the communities where you’re putting the trees, then you end up reinforcing other parts of injustices that have created the problem to begin with.” 

Danielle E. Gaines contributed to this report. 

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