Does tree inequity exist in the UK? The answer is definitively yes. With the launch of Tree Equity Score UK this December, American Forests’ first-of-its-kind analysis in the UK reveals a similar pattern to the US. Tree cover per person is roughly double in areas that are most affluent as well as areas with the fewest people identifying with a minoritized ethnic group, compared to the lowest income areas, and areas with the most residents from minoritized ethnic groups.
Tree Equity is no longer just an American phenomenon. It is a globally relevant issue.
American Forests first teamed up with partners Woodland Trust and Centre for Sustainable Healthcare in early 2022. Tree cover disparities are under-researched in the UK context and the team committed to an initial exploratory exercise, evaluating data to understand patterns in tree canopy cover. As decisive results came in, the team embarked on a comprehensive process, incorporating rigorous UK data into Tree Equity Score methodologies and consulting data experts, policy experts and community experts to tailor and ground-truth Tree Equity Score UK to local contexts.
Currently, the U.K. average urban tree canopy cover is 17%, which is below government recommendations. Achieving Tree Equity, according to Tree Equity Score UK, would take roughly doubling the U.K.’s average urban tree cover to 30%. The added tree cover would have significant impacts on peak temperatures and health. Increasing the average level of tree cover in European cities (including in the UK) to 30% could reduce heat-related deaths by up to 40% . Air pollution is estimated to cause 40,000 deaths annually in the UK. A study in the West Midlands suggests that doubling tree cover across the region would reduce the concentration of fine PM10 particles by 25% .
We interviewed members of the core team involved in developing Tree Equity Score for the UK for an under-the-hood look at Tree Equity Score UK. They offer insights into the development of the UK tool and discuss opportunities that will open up with the launch of this resource. Check out excerpts from each interview.
The Tree Equity Score reveals an inequity that is hidden in plain sight for most people.
“This inequity, and the consequences for health inequalities, are not something that’s talked about or currently addressed through national or local policy. A few city authorities are starting to pick this up though – the Woodland Trust is working with City Councils in places like Belfast, Birmingham and Bristol to do this. So the conversation is just beginning and we hope the Tree Equity Score will carry it much further.
I think the capability of Tree Equity Score to drive policy solutions for neighbourhood level canopy conservation is much needed. There are trees wherever you go in towns and cities but in some neighbourhoods there are very few trees at all. Some people in the UK live with barely any access to the essential benefits of trees. One challenge for the UK is that our street layouts are old and can be very short on space for trees. If you live on a terraced street in a city there may be very little room for trees. But the benefits of trees are needed in these neighbourhoods. Tree Equity Score demands a response to this challenge.”
We already know that people who have been disadvantaged by society are not getting equal access to the benefits of trees, but the Tree Equity Score has illustrated how stark this inequity really is.
“People living in the most deprived areas have less than half the tree cover and significantly higher levels of air pollution than the most affluent areas. Poor air quality is the biggest environmental risk to public health in the UK, and the cost of the health impact of air pollution is likely to be greater than original estimates of £8 to £20 billion.
Simply put, trees save lives. At the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare (CSH), we are looking forward to sharing the Tree Equity Score with the UK because of the profound benefits it will have to the people who need trees most. As an organisation focused on sustainability in healthcare, we recognise not only the significant benefits trees have to health, but also their ability to redress health inequalities. The benefits of trees on health have been shown to have an even greater effect on those living in higher deprivation, so the Tree Equity Score will help to get the right trees in the right place to deliver those benefits for the people who need them most.
Healthcare organisations, especially the NHS in the UK, are uniquely placed to address tree inequity on their own sites, as well as advocating for Tree Equity across all the communities they serve. At the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare, we will work with healthcare sites to use Tree Equity Score to determine where trees should be planted to have the greatest benefit for communities. We will also use the tool to determine our own tree planting; as we have 150,000 trees to plant on healthcare sites over the next 2 years. Tree Equity Score will enable us to plan where to plant these trees for the greatest impact.”
“We worked closely with our partners Woodland Trust and Centre for Sustainable Healthcare to acquire the datasets needed to calculate Tree Equity Score. The UK Tree Equity Score is different from the US Tree Equity Score in a few important ways. One, the countries of England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland often have different datasets, so we had to be mindful of the differences between countries, while keeping our analysis consistent country wide. In addition, the UK is much smaller than the U.S. and has a country wide baseline tree canopy target of 30%, while the US has four baseline targets based off four generalized ecoregions. Another major difference is our priority indicators, which we decided on by listening to the folks at the Woodland Trust, Centre for Sustainable Healthcare, as well as from feedback from trusted partners and stakeholders.
I had a lot of fun learning a bit about the U.K. through their data. You learn about how their Census works, and what datasets are well known and well used. And from talking about Tree Equity with our partners, I’ve gotten interesting insights into places like Belfast and Sheffield.
I actually get to spend a lot of time talking to people in communities that are going to or are currently using our tool. They come from a variety of backgrounds, but all are interested in increasing canopy cover in an equitable way, and I love hearing about what is important to them. It’s always so different and specific to their lived experiences, so I feel I have learned a lot.
Whether it’s about the struggles of tree maintenance or successful community engagement efforts, I try my best to take what people have told me to our team and incorporate what we can into the development of our tools to make them as helpful as possible to the people on the ground working.
As a younger person, I have grown up my whole life feeling like we are living in ‘rapidly changing times’. It has impacted the way I think about work a lot. I feel there is no time to waste, so I want to spend my time on things that can positively impact communities as soon as possible. Trees can have such rapid and long-lasting impacts to people’s wellness, so I’m always grateful to be working on a tool that has been getting more trees in the ground where people need them the most. When it comes to tools, there is always more to be done and more to improve, so that drives me to strive for better Tree Equity products every day.”
“Tree inequity in Northern Ireland has profound consequences for people and communities. The Tree Equity Score maps highlight a correlation between higher canopy cover in areas with higher incomes, suggesting that those with lower incomes miss out on the benefits provided by trees. This imbalance not only shows a lack of access to benefits, such as cleaner air, offered by trees but also increases vulnerability to the impacts of climate change. Trees play a crucial role in capturing and storing carbon, as well as mitigating the effects of climate change, including higher summer temperatures and more intense rainfall. As a result, some communities in Northern Ireland face greater challenges in building resilience against the impacts of climate change due to this tree inequity.
The UK Tree Equity Score will help in Northern Ireland by prioritising communities with low tree cover that might also have fewer resources or have been historically overlooked.
This can support a more targeted approach to community engagement so that residents can shape sustainable planting projects tailored to their needs and preferences, such as improving air quality and creating more green spaces.
I have enjoyed collaborating with American Forests to develop the methodology for the UK Tree Equity Score. This partnership has facilitated a meaningful exchange of knowledge, laying the groundwork for influencing various projects in the future. I hope this shared learning will foster further cooperation on the Tree Equity Score in the UK, the US, and beyond!”
“I live in Sheffield, which is in the north of England. Sheffield is a very wooded city, but it is clear to see the inequitable distribution of trees from the Tree Equity Score map. The old industrial areas along the Don Valley and the city centre have the fewest trees and these built-up areas must be seen as a priority in the future. As pressure for housing builds up in the UK and areas that were formerly used for industry and commerce are converted into residential areas it’s vital that trees are seen as critical infrastructure. In June last year we saw temperatures of 40°C in Sheffield for the first time and this means that anyone living in newly built flats surrounded by tarmac and concrete is going to find it increasingly difficult to live a comfortable life as the climate heats up and these scenarios become more frequent.
For 25 years I’ve worked in the urban forest in two Northern English cities working with many different groups of people. In less affluent areas trees are just as important as those in areas of greater wealth, and what I love about Tree Equity is that it shines a light these places, where the importance of tree cover and the benefit to the community have been neglected for far too long.
We just beginning the conversation around Tree Equity in the UK and I’m really excited to see how the Tree Equity Score is going to be used by policy makers, public servants and communities across the UK. We hope to be talking to lots of people about Tree Equity over the next year. We really want to get across what an amazingly useful tool it is! As an urban forester I’d really like to highlight that it’s not just about planting trees, but also looking after the trees that you’ve already got and ensuring that there’s proper protection in place for them. Involving residents is also key to making sure that Tree Equity works. Changing public spaces by planting and establishing trees can only be successful if it’s done with the people that live there. I’ve been so impressed by American Forests’ work that has focused on creating employment for people within low Tree Equity communities to help grow, protect, and learn about their urban forest.
Communities that understand the trees growing in their community are far more likely to be able to look after and protect them both now and in the future. This means that they have a key role in creating sustainable and resilient urban forests that will help mitigate some of the challenges posed to us by a rapidly changing climate, and hopefully bring joy and wonder for generations to come.
American Forests’ GIS & Data Science Team is a small, multi-disciplinary team of developers, data analysts and designers that bridges computer science, data analysis, data representation, visual design and interaction. The Tree Equity Score UK project was led by Mushtaaq Ali, Chris David and Chase Dawson, with valuable contributions from the team including Julia Twichell, Refugio Mariscal, Geri Rosenberg and Ari Simmons.
The Woodland Trust is the UK’s largest woodland conservation charity. By protecting ancient, veteran and valuable woods and trees; restoring native woods and trees to good health; and creating wildlife-rich woods and planting native trees; it hopes to create a world where woods and trees thrive for nature, climate and people.
The Centre for Sustainable Healthcare is one of the world’s foremost institutions for sustainable healthcare in research and practice. By sharing knowledge, skills and tools, it inspires and empowers all people in the health system to play their part in the transformation to a sustainable health service that supports our communities and natural world.