Raimondo volunteers at a tree planting event in Woonsocket, R.I. on Arbor Day 2019.
Raimondo volunteers at a tree planting event in Woonsocket, R.I. on Arbor Day 2019. Credit: Office of Governor Gina M. Rainmondo.

AT 1,200 SQUARE MILES, Rhode Island is the nation’s smallest state. But under the leadership of Governor Gina Raimondo, it’s become an outsized influencer in promoting the value of urban forests to address climate change, public health and employment issues. For her work in implementing a bold strategy to plant and protect trees, particularly in low-income neighborhoods, American Forests honored the governor with its inaugural Tree Equity Champion Award in September.

Raimondo was the force behind Rhode Island’s 2017 decision to become a founding member of the 25-state U.S. Climate Alliance, which pledged to take immediate action to address climate change. Her administration has backed that commitment with several initiatives that emphasize the role forests play in improving climate resilience.

Partnering with American Forests, Rhode Island is now building the methodology for a Tree Equity Score, which helps prioritize investment in neighborhoods where low tree canopy overlaps with socioeconomic needs. The state is also piloting a suite of planning, policy and finance tools that cities, nonprofits and other groups can use to optimize their urban forests to address climate change and public health needs. A companion Tree Equity Score planning tool, launching this fall, offers GIS-based resources that help under-resourced populations pinpoint where new tree plantings will have the most potential to improve public health, reduce energy use through natural cooling and remove carbon from the atmosphere.

“Rhode Island is leading in the fight against climate change. As the fastest warming continental state, we know we don’t have time to waste,” Raimondo says. “This initiative builds on our statewide climate resilience strategy, Resilient Rhody, and highlights the urgency for urban tree canopy as a critical infrastructure on the front lines.”

With heat-related deaths projected to increase ten-fold in eastern U.S. cities by 2050, Rhode Island is focused on expanding urban forests to alleviate health problems caused by rising temperatures in the state’s Health Equity Zones, which are often lower-income communities with less tree cover and poorer air quality.

“Rhode Island is riveted on the equity and practical issues around urban forestry. Our goal is to increase the tree canopy in our cities and to get this right! That means taking a strategic approach to all aspects of Tree Equity,” says Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management Director, Janet Coit. “Through a diverse coalition of stakeholders, we are creating state- of-the-art tools, finance mechanisms, and policies to ensure long-term success in both planting and maintaining a healthy urban forest to enhance quality of life for generations to come.”