Rhode Island neighborhood with a high Tree Equity Score
A neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island with a high Tree Equity Score. Photo Credit: Eben Dente / American Forests

The Pawtucket and Central Falls Health Equity Zone in Rhode Island has been awarded a $100,000 Tree Planting for Climate Resilience and Human Health grant to expand tree cover in neighborhoods that do not have enough trees. 

The neighboring cities of Pawtucket and Central Falls are among 10 lower-income areas in Rhode Island experiencing poor health outcomes, which prompted the state in 2015 to designate them as Health Equity Zones (HEZ). This designation helps the state prioritize investment in these communities to improve people’s health. Many of the HEZ communities also lack trees, which contribute to healthier communities. Trees cool neighborhoods, reducing heat-related deaths, and they filter the air, which decreases the risk of respiratory illnesses.  

For these reasons and more, American Forests is working to achieve Tree Equity, defined as the right number of trees so all people experience the health, economic and other benefits of trees. American Forests, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Rhode Island Department of Health, the Rhode Island Foundation and Bank of America collaborated to fund the first urban forestry grant to increase tree cover in a Health Equity Zone 

At just one square mile, Central Falls is the smallest city within the smallest state, but is also the 27th most densely populated city in the United States. Its population is predominantly immigrant and Latinx. In neighboring Pawtucket, the population is made up of a diverse mix of Cape Verdean, Latinx, White, and other racial/ethnic groups. Both cities are covered in impervious surfacessuch as streets and parking lots, leaving neighborhoods that are lacking trees even more exposed to higher temperatures. This combination puts them at risk of becoming urban heat islandsthe creation of “islands” of heat that result in a dangerous rise in temperature. Not unlike many U.S. cities, formerly redlined communities such as those in Pawtucket and Central Falls have higher concentrations of people of color and are more susceptible to extreme heat today. 

This project prioritizes tree plantings that will protect school-aged children, who represent one of the most heat-vulnerable demographics,” said Molly Henry, Senior Manager of Climate and Health at American Forests. “Trees will be planted along routes where students walk to and from school, and on school properties that have few to no trees.”  

American Forests worked with Rhode Island to determine a Tree Equity Score for all urbanized areas in the state. The score measures a neighborhood’s tree coverage while also taking into account socioeconomic and health factors, local development patterns, urban heat island effect, and then compares the neighborhood to others. American Forests also developed a companion tool, Tree Equity Score Analyzer (TESA), which provides more specific information on the neighborhoods and individual parcels of land where trees can be planted in order to achieve equitable tree coverThese resourcescan be used by conservation organizations, community groups and others to help make the case for,and drive investment in neighborhoods with the greatest need for trees, jobs and protection from the effects of climate change.  

“Our health is largely determined by factors in the places where we live, learn, work, and play. Inequities in tree cover contribute to health differences across ZIP codes – and planting trees can help improve health outcomes over the long term, said Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the Rhode Island Department of Health. “This award demonstrates the power of Health Equity Zones to build healthier, more resilient communities.” 

The grant will support the use of TESA to plant 140 trees on public and private property in Central Falls and Pawtucket neighborhoods that have low Tree Equity Scores. The project leadGroundwork Rhode Island, will expand their training curriculum on proper tree planting and care techniques to include how to use TESA for identifying planting sites. Residents and community groups working to improve health outcomes will decide where to plant each tree, choosing from a list of planting sites recommended by TESA.  

“Groundwork Rhode Island is thrilled to use our organizational capacity to manage this project, conduct community outreach, and plant and maintain trees in collaboration with many partners, in order to support the tree planting goals of the cities of Pawtucket and Central Falls,” said Amelia Rose, Groundwork RI’s executive director.  

Neighborhoods that can benefit the most from trees often have the fewest number of them and the same neighborhoods often have higher unemployment ratesTESA is unique because it is designed to target investment in neighborhoods that often have a high percentage of people of color, children and people living below the poverty line.  

Groundwork Rhode Island trains adults and high school students from socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods in Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls and employs them as GroundCorp landscape team members (adults), and Green Team members (youth). For this project, both GroundCorp and the Green Team will participate in tree planting efforts. Groundwork RI will train Green Team members to use TESA, and lead remote presentations about how the tool can be used to create Tree Equity in their communities. Green Team members will also be involved in community engagement and education efforts, helping to identify and recruit home and business owners who want trees planted on their property. Health Equity Zone members, like the Blackstone Valley Community Action Partnership and Progreso Latino, will also receive stipends to help recruit community participants for the presentations and tree plantings.  

The grant also addresses the need for longterm care and maintenance of trees. Groundwork’s GroundCorp landscape team will be in charge of regular maintenance and watering under a 3-year maintenance plan. In addition, Green Team members will receive training in tree care and stewardship for three consecutive summers to support maintenance efforts, especially summertime wateringensuring the long-term survival of newly-planted trees.  

This project provides an exciting model for how other cities across the U.S. can use Tree Equity Score to prioritize equity and inclusion in urban forestry projects 

“It’s exciting to see public health and climate action come together in the new Tree Equity Score and urban forestry tools, and to begin delivering benefits to communities with this transformational Health Equity Zone project,” said Sacha Spector, program director for the environment at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. “We’re looking forward to this approach gaining momentum throughout Rhode Island.”