Summertime should be a season filled with the joyfulness of vacations, cookouts, trips to the pool and outdoor family gatherings. However, due to climate change, summer now also represents a “danger season” with life-and-death consequences of heat waves, poor air quality, increased flooding and devastating wildfires. Every year, heat kills more people than any other extreme weather event — more than hurricanes, cyclones and winter storms combined — and sickens many more. While we all suffer from the consequences of rising temperatures, the burden falls disproportionately on the most vulnerable among us: the elderly, young children, communities of color and residents of low-income neighborhoods. Folks in lower-income neighborhoods that are hotter and more polluted due to systemic lack of trees are also more likely to walk, bike or use public transit. But the U.S. government has taken notice, recently advancing legislation to address these very issues.
The House appropriations subcommittee on Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development recently approved their Fiscal Year 2023 funding bill, with $55 million for the newly created Healthy Streets program at the U.S. Department of Transportation. Healthy Streets, authorized in the bipartisan infrastructure bill signed into law last fall, provides grants to eligible entities like cities to both expand tree cover and deploy state-of-the-art, cooler, more porous pavement solutions. When implemented, Healthy Streets will mitigate urban heat islands, improve air quality and reduce the extent of impervious surfaces in our cities.
With a specific focus on areas of extreme heat and poor air quality, the Healthy Streets program will fund assessments of urban heat islands and tree canopies, including equity mapping of tree canopy gaps and flood-prone locations. These assessments will help local decision makers prioritize project areas that will have the greatest impact in their communities. By using a ‘both and’ instead of ‘either or’ approach, Healthy Streets will couple tree planting with more porous surfaces, alleviating stormwater runoff in the communities most vulnerable to flooding. And this important program will directly translate to more shaded areas to wait for the bus, cooler sidewalks to walk and play on, and restored recreational opportunities. Not only will this program save lives, it will improve the quality of life of residents.
Ultimately, the Healthy Streets program empowers our cities to reverse decades of discriminatory and exploitive policies and disinvestment that have left communities with too few trees and far too much concrete. American Forests is a leading convener of Trees for Community Recovery, a diverse coalition working to galvanize support for the protection and expansion of urban and community forests to scale and replicate projects that address climate inequity, allowing cities to rewrite their own history. Across the country, cities have already begun utilizing trees as critical infrastructure to do just that. From Phoenix, where trees and smart surfaces are cooling America’s hottest city through its Cool Corridors program; to Detroit, where interstates and lack of tree canopy have contributed to childhood asthma rates as high as four times the state average in some neighborhoods. From Chicago to Boston, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Miami, Cleveland and Denver, cities of all sizes and all climates are working to bridge the equity gap in major tree canopy coverage through strategic planning, programs and community partnerships.
These vanguard cities are working to equitably address the impacts of climate change while creating jobs and workforce training initiatives in the very neighborhoods suffering the most from extreme weather and a lack of economic opportunity. The Healthy Streets program will not only help implement and expand these cities’ projects, it will provide much-needed funding for other cities to follow their lead and adopt similar initiatives.
There’s still some road ahead before Healthy Streets can be enacted, but Congress’s funding of this crucial program is a meaningful step toward expediting its delivery, especially given that it was not included in the President’s proposed budget for FY 2023. We’re thrilled to see federal recognition of the incredible power of trees, our best natural defense against extreme heat and air pollution. With temperatures bound to climb this summer, the time to act is now, so that we can deliver more trees, more shade and better quality of life, sooner. Everyone deserves the health, climate and economic benefits of trees, and investments in Tree Equity now through the Healthy Streets program will pay off for generations — and summers — to come.