Tree Equity In America’s Cities

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Urban Forestry And The Role Of Tree Equity

Over 140 million acres of America’s forests are located in cities and towns. Urban forestry is defined as the planting, care and protection of trees in the urban and suburban environment. Urban forestry involves both planning and management of the urban forest because the right tree, planted in the right place, in the right way promotes the many benefits trees provide for people, wildlife, and climate. In addition to overall improved health and well-being, the benefits include improved academic performance, fewer illnesses, and instances of death caused by extreme heat and poor air quality. As we seek remedies for the climate crisis, urban forestry will continue to be a key component to any strategy looking to maximize the benefits that trees provide.

Through our urban forestry program, Community ReLeafwe help develop and bring to life plans for planting and caring for city trees. Our approach to urban forestry is to focus on the city neighborhoods that need trees the most.  

Trees are vital to the health, wealth and climate resiliency of all people who live in cities. But a map of tree cover in America’s cities is too often a map of income and raceThat’s because, often in cities, trees are sparse in low-income neighborhoods and some neighborhoods of color. It’s time to create Tree Equity — trees in every part of every city. 

Tree Equity is a moral imperative, not just an environmental issue. It helps ensure everybody benefits from the power of trees to fulfill our basic needs, such as breathing fresh air and drinking clean water. Trees also cool homes, which reduces heat-related illnesses and utility costs; lower flood risk; and increase wealth by creating tree-related career opportunities. 

For these and other reasons, trees are more than something pretty to look at or sit underMuch like buildings, streets and sewer lines, trees are essential infrastructure that improve quality of life. 

Trees — And Their Benefits — Aren’t Spread Equally Across Cities

A map of tree cover in almost any American city is also a map of income. Simply put, lower-income neighborhoods usually don’t have as many trees.

And that inequitable distribution of trees in cities exacerbates social inequities:

  • Fewer trees mean more heat-related illnesses. Approximately 1,200 heat-related deaths and countless heat-related illnesses are prevented because of trees each year.
  • Communities with the highest tree cover needs tend to be those with the highest unemployment.
  • Increased emissions erode air quality. In 2018 alone, poor air quality was linked to nearly 10,000 additional deaths in the U.S.
  • Climate change fuels the spread of pests and diseases that kill or damage trees, as well as extreme weather events that uproot trees.
  • According to a new American Forests study, we need to plant 31.4 million trees per year in cities to advance Tree Equity and slow climate change.

Learn how trees address social inequities here.

Detroit Aerial Maps

Side-by-side images of two different Detroit neighborhoods illustrates the disparity in tree cover. Credit: Google Maps.

Why It’s Important To Create Tree Equity


A shovel lies next to a while while an arm pulls soil out of it for planting.

Trees create career opportunities, such as jobs in tree maintenance, mapping and making products out of city trees that are removed. A 10% increase in the number of entry-level urban forestry positions is expected over the next decade. Nearly 25% of the people who will fill these jobs will likely be self-employed, so this type of opportunity can set the stage for improved economic mobility and a better quality of life for those who need it most.

Learn more about how trees create jobs

City trees improve health

A little girl hugs a tree.

In cities nationwide, trees prevent heat-related deaths and illnesses by lowering temperatures and counteracting the urban heat island effect, in which darkly colored surface materials such as roads and rooftops, absorb heat and make their urban surroundings warmer. This ability of trees to protect people from heat is significant, given that a 10-fold increase in heat-related deaths is expected in the eastern U.S. by 2050.

Learn more about how trees reduce urban heat impacts

City trees save money

Trees line both sides of a city street.

Healthy trees help reduce utility costs — nearly $7.8 billion saved annually from energy bills for homes, from small towns to metro areas in the U.S., due to trees blocking wind and providing shade.

Learn more about how trees save money


People run and bike on a paved road through a city park.

City trees can also improve air quality by trapping air pollutants, which keeps the air clean, limits the formation of ground level ozone, and reduces cardiovascular and lower respiratory tract illnesses. Trees in U.S. metropolitan areas and small towns absorb 822,000 metric tons of air pollutants, preventing 575,000 cases of asthma and other acute respiratory symptoms annually.

Learn more about trees and clean air


People walk in a city park with the Boston skyline in the background.

Trees absorb rainfall and melted snow, reducing the risk of extreme flooding. At the same time, trees filter sediments and other pollutants from the water in the soil before it reaches a water source, such as a stream, lake or river. The average American uses an estimated 88 gallons of water per day, making this ability of trees to clean water an important public health service.

Learn more about how trees clean our water


A father teaches his young son to play soccer in a park surrounded by trees.

People benefit physically and mentally from being able to exercise and relax in forests — hiking, biking, skiing or simply sitting under a tree to read a book or meditate. A 2012 study in Chicago showed significant improvements in mood and memory after walking in nature, and a 2015 study found time in nature can reduce rumination, the pattern of repetitive thought associated with depression.

Learn more about how trees benefit mental health

Our Goals

By 2030, Community ReLeaf will accomplish the following by working with a diverse group of partners:

  • In 100 of America’s cities, every lower-income neighborhood achieves a passing Tree Equity Score—an indicator that the neighborhood has enough trees in the right places so that all people benefit from trees.
  • At least 100,000 people, particularly those from marginalized communities, have entered jobs in forestry.

How We Create Tree Equity In Every Part Of Every City

We lead in innovation with new tools and scientific research

In our Innovation Lab, we solve complicated puzzles and empower the urban forestry field. We share climate change-informed forestry practices when determining what trees to plant, where to plant them and how to take care of them. And we can now calculate a Tree Equity Score for urban areas — cities and nearby small towns that have at least 50,000 people — across the United States. The score is an indicator of whether the neighborhood has the right number of trees so all people experience the health, economic and other benefits that trees provide. And it is based on such factors as the existing tree cover, population density, income, employment, race and ethnicity, age and urban heat island effect (as measured by surface temperature). This new platform allows city leaders, urban forestry professionals, and residents the ability to look at neighborhood-level scores across a city or region and identify where resources should be focused in order to close any gap in tree cover between neighborhoods.

Through our Tree Equity: Career Pathways Initiative we are closing the gap between urban forestry workforce needs and qualified workers. The focus of the initiative is training people from lower-income neighborhoods (where there are fewer jobs and trees) and placing individuals in urban forestry jobs.

We create place-based partnerships in cities and small towns 

We create place-based partnerships in cities so we can work with others to develop and implement enduring, science-based data and plans that relate to planting trees and taking care of the trees we already have. Next, we advocate for local, state and/or federal policies and programs — as well as funding to support them — so we can bring the plans to life. Last, we plant and care for urban forests so they are healthy and resilient for generations to come. We’ve worked in more than 25 cities and are now focused on cities like Detroit, Boston, Phoenix and Rhode Island (at approximately 1,200 square miles, the entire state was designated an urban forest by the US Climate Alliance).

We build movements to protect and restore urban forests 

We inspire and empower actions — such as the creation of new urban forestry policies — at a large scale. We do so in a variety of ways, including via Vibrant Cities Lab, the preeminent online resource for urban forestry research, tools and case studies. We created and, now, manage the site with the U.S. Forest Service and National Association of Regional Councils.

Many of our projects are geared toward bringing to life the two pledges we have made as part of the U.S. Chapter of We have pledged to plant 100 million trees in large forested landscapes and 1.2 million in cities across the U.S by 2030. Members of the chapter already have pledged 855 million trees in cities and large forested landscapes in the U.S. and overseas. They, too, have pledged to take on supporting actions, such as investing in mapping technology and carbon finance, worth billions of dollars. The chapter, created in August 2020, is led by American Forests and World Economic Forum. It is the only means in the U.S. for bringing together people who have made commitments related to forests so they can learn from each other and help each other achieve their goals.

Photo Credit: Adobe Stock


Our Urban Forestry Projects

We work in urban landscapes — from metropolitan areas to small towns — across the country. While we work in several urban places, some of our current priority places are Detroit, Boston, Phoenix and Rhode Island.


Photo Credit: Adobe Stock

We are helping to convert much of Detroit’s vacant land into accessible green space. Working with local partners, we’ve already transformed vacant or underutilized land into an outdoor education center and a tree nursery to help supply trees for planting while creating jobs for local residents.  

Learn more about our work in Detroit


Photo Credit: Adobe Stock

In Boston we are helping the city achieve its urban forestry goals in a way that considers climate and public health. This includes establishing local nonprofit capacity to advocate for and advance urban forestry. 

Learn more about our work in Boston


Photo Credit: American Forests

The City of Phoenix is the first to commit to creating Tree Equity through a memorandum of understanding with American Forests. American Forests is co-leading a coalition of partners, with the City of Phoenix and the Arizona Sustainability Alliance, to improve Tree Equity throughout Phoenix and Maricopa County. Our goal is to preserve and grow urban forests in heat vulnerable communities. The Phoenix Metro Urban Forestry Roundtable is completing a climate vulnerability assessment, developing a Citizen Forester program and mapping ‘cool corridors’ to prioritize for tree planting.

Learn more about our work in Phoenix

Rhode Island

Rhode Island

Photo Credit: Ian Leahy

We are piloting a collection of mapping, planning, policy and finance tools to improve the Tree Equity Score in communities with less tree cover and poorer air quality. 

Learn more about our work in Rhode Island

Our Other Work

Photo Credit: American Forests

In an effort to expand and sustain forest cover across all of America’s cities, we support urban forestry in a variety of ways. We lead high-impact planting projects, but we also help cities plan and advocate for the protection of trees. In Atlanta, we helped create a novel tree protection ordinance to prevent the clearing of trees that provide critical benefits to wildlife. We are also helping Arlington County in Virginia create an urban forestry master plan. We also participate in coalitions, such as the Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance, which is addressing the growing threat of extreme urban heat on vulnerable people worldwide. Explore all of the places we’re impacting 

All Places


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Our Experts

Ian Leahy

Vice President of Urban Forestry

Email Ian

Maisie Hughes

Senior Director of Urban Forestry

Email Maisie 

Sarah Anderson

Director of Career Pathways

Email Sarah

Rose Tileston

Senior Manager of Urban Forestry

Email Rose

Eboni Hall

Senior Manager of Urban Forestry Education

Email Eboni

eric candela manager community releaf urban forestry american forests 2019

Eric Candela

Senior Manager of Community ReLeaf

Email Eric

Molly Henry

Senior Manager, Climate and Health

Email Molly

Tiffany Mrotek

Senior Manager of Career Pathways

Email Tiffany

Shanita Rasheed

Senior Communications Manager of Community ReLeaf

Email Shanita