Trees as a Pathway for Social Equity

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why it matters

Trees are more than something pretty to look at or sit under. Much like schools, streets and sewer lines, trees are essential infrastructure. They are vital to the health and wealth of people.

  • Trees across the U.S. absorb 17.4 million tons of air pollutants, preventing 670,000 cases of asthma and other acute respiratory symptoms annually.
  • In cities nationwide, trees prevent approximately 1,200 heat-related deaths and countless heat-related illnesses annually. 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.
  • Nationwide in the U.S., trees reduce energy use for heating and cooling by 7.2%, on average.
  • Trees are a source of income—such as jobs related to tree maintenance and making products out of reclaimed wood. For every $1 million invested in forest restoration, 39.7 forest-related jobs are created in rural U.S. areas alone.

But a map of tree cover is too often a map of income and race—especially in cities. That’s because, often in cities, trees are sparse in low-income neighborhoods and some neighborhoods of color. The inequitable distribution of trees exacerbates social inequities.

How are we addressing social equity?

Our approach to addressing social equity is three-pronged. In our Innovation Lab, we incubate new tools and scientific research to help solve complicated puzzles and empower the forestry field. We create place-based partnerships in cities and large, rural landscapes 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. And we build movements related to #TreeEquity, federal funding for urban forestry and other initiatives that inspire and empower actions at a large scale. Following are some of the projects we are working on that are part of this approach.

American Forests in Action

Photo credit: Casey Trees

Innovation: Career Pathways

Urban forestry will see a 10 percent increase in job openings for entry-level positions from 2020 to 2030, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many of those jobs will be for planting, trimming and pruning trees. Nearly 25 percent 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. American Forests launched the Tree Equity: Career Pathways Initiative in 2018 to address this opportunity and, simultaneously, ensure that all people benefit from trees. The focus of the initiative is training people in low-income neighborhoods (where there are fewer jobs and trees) and placing individuals in urban forestry jobs.

Providence, RI

Photo Credit: Eunika Sopponicka for Getty Images.

Movement Building: Vibrant Cities Lab

Trees weave throughout cities. As a result, urban forestry, by definition connects such diverse fields as planning, landscape architecture, transportation, public works, public health, public safety and city management, touching each but without being embodied by any. We help pull them together through Vibrant Cities Lab—a website that has the most comprehensive, current and relevant research, case studies, tools and best practices related to urban forestry. Urban forestry advocates from around the world tap into this information to build support for urban forestry plans and investments, as well as Tree Equity. Vibrant Cities Lab also is designed to be welcoming to those who don’t see the world through the prism of trees.

Place-based Partnerships: Detroit

Detroit was once known as the “Paris of the Midwest” because it had so many lush, tree-lined streets. Now trees only cover 24 percent of the city, largely because of two diseases that killed tens of thousands of trees. American Forests is helping turn the vacant land, where the trees once stood, green so people in the city can experience the many benefits provided by trees. For example, we helped turn the city’s abandoned nursery into a non-profit nursery that grows trees which are later planted in the city. The nursery also serves as a place to train people in urban forestry jobs. We also are planting ash trees resistant to emerald ash borer (an insect that killed most of the city’s ash trees last century). Wood from the trees will eventually be used to make guitars. And we helped create a tree-lined outdoor education center where there once stood four blighted, abandoned homes.

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