The practice of redlining city neighborhoods legally ended in the 1970s. But the negative impacts of nearly four decades of this practice can still be felt today—including when it comes to trees.

new study shows that formerly redlined neighborhoods have far fewer trees than those that were not redlined. People in formerly redlined neighborhoods, therefore, don’t benefit from the many things trees do to help us live better lives—such as absorbing water so there are fewer catastrophic floods and providing shade so there are fewer heat-related illnesses.

Redlining was an unethical practice that put financial and other services out of reach for entire neighborhoods where people of color lived. Its name derives from the government-backed practice of drawing red lines on maps to indicate the perceived high risk associated with banks loaning people money to buy homes based on location rather than their individual qualifications. Green lines were drawn around wealthier neighborhoods of predominantly United States-born white people perceived to be lower risk for such investments.

The socioeconomic impacts of this racially discriminatory housing practice are well documented—unemployment and limited higher education opportunities, for example, that still exist today. But, until now, there has been little research related to the connection between redlining and the environment. 

On average, the study shows, trees currently cover approximately 23 percent of the formerly redlined (grade D) neighborhoods and 43 percent of the formerly greenlined (grade A) neighborhoods. Thirty-seven redlined city neighborhoods were included in the study. In a nutshell, the ranking system used to assess loan risk in the last century parallels the rank order of average percent tree canopy cover today, according to the study.

The study results drive home the need for American Forests’ work to achieve Tree Equity—trees in every part of every city so all people benefit from trees. We do so by working with partners to create comprehensive urban forestry strategies that turn vacant lots into nurseries where affordable trees are grown, provide jobs in planting and maintaining trees in the neighborhoods that need them most, create economies for wood products from fallen urban trees, and more. 

Why? Because trees are more than something pretty to look at or sit under. They are life-and-death infrastructure—much like sewer lines, streets and schools. There are many statistics to prove this. Here are just two of them:

  • Healthy trees prevent approximately 1,200 heat-related deaths and countless heat-related illnesses annually in cities nationwide. New research, published this week, shows that land surface temperatures are as much as 36 degrees Fahrenheit higher in most formerly redlined neighborhoods than non-redlined neighborhoods. This is partially attributed to the limited number of trees in formerly redlined areas. Groundwork Rhode Island has conducted similar research
  • Healthy trees help reduce utility costs—nearly $4.7 billion in electricity and $3.1 billion in heating use nationwide annually—by shading buildings and blocking strong winds. 

It’s not by happenstance that these statistics exist.

“Our cities are not like tropical rainforests that developed on their own,” said American Forests Senior Manager of Tree Equity Sarah Lillie Anderson. “People designed cities. And, unfortunately, they did not factor in the needs of everybody when doing so. The design process was far from inclusive.”Listen to Anderson talk about the new studies on National Public Radio this week.

The new studies, she said, underscore the inherent inequities in our built environment. “Just walk around low-income neighborhoods where there are a lot of people of color and the inequities are staring you in the face. Often, you’ll see fewer trees. People are surrounded by concrete.”

American Forests has set an ambitious goal for its Tree Equity initiative. By 2030, we want every neighborhood in America’s 100 largest cities to reach a passing Tree Equity Score—an indicator that the neighborhood has enough trees in the right places to serve all people, including the most vulnerable populations. 

Due to begin rolling out later this year, the methodology for determining the Tree Equity Score will be based on tree canopy, climate projections and public health data of each neighborhood nationwide. We have created diverse partnerships in Detroit, Phoenix and other cities to develop comprehensive strategies that will result in a healthier, larger and better maintained tree canopy. And we are advocating for federal funding to help bring these strategies to life. 

Join us in creating Tree Equity. It’s our moral imperative to do so.