To Feel Less Heat, We Need More Trees in Our Cities

This column originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on July 11, 2023.

All of us suffered last week through day after day of the hottest average temperatures ever recorded on Earth. Now imagine it had been 10% hotter where you live.

That wasn’t hard to do for residents in urban neighborhoods where the amount of pavement, concrete and glass far surpasses the number of leafy trees. The people who live there pay a heat tax that impacts their health and their economic well-being.

Roughly 80% of Americans live in urban areas, and roughly 80% of those city dwellers live in neighborhoods with less than 20% tree cover. And those places with minimal tree canopy experience significantly higher temperatures than green neighborhoods just miles away. That’s true in big cities like Newark and New Orleans, and smaller ones like Burlington, Vermont, and Erie, Pennsylvania.

The list of quality-of-life indicators that worsen or decline as the presence of trees declines is long — health conditions from heat stroke to asthma, outdoor activity, air pollution, flooding and chemicals from stormwater run-off, energy costs and home values among them. The most vulnerable are hardest hit: children, the elderly and pregnant women.

The places where people of color and low-income whites live get far less relief from trees. Communities in which nearly all residents experience poverty have 41% less canopy than those with nearly no poverty.

The group American Forests calls this the “tree equity” gap. One of the easiest ways to find the neighborhoods with too few trees and too much heat is to look at a map of where racial red-lining prevented residents from benefiting from federal home loans for much of the 20th century. 

The need couldn’t be simpler to state: Plant more trees where there are too few. But meeting the need has been less of a priority for those in neighborhoods where shade isn’t a luxury. We can’t overlook the fact that urban trees help everyone — they keep close to a billion metric tons of climate-killing carbon out of the atmosphere.

We’re beginning to change that inattention. The same historic spending package approved last year that’s driving renewal of American manufacturing and growth of clean energy includes $1.5 billion for planting and maintaining urban trees, with first $1 billion in grants expected to be announced at the end of the summer. That’s at least 25 times more than the federal government has spent for urban forestry in most years.

That money gives us a chance to grow more than trees. We can grow livelihoods. Good jobs created in nurseries and tree care businesses should go first to the people in these neighborhoods who need them. We have good models: The Detroit Conservation Corps trains unemployed people, many of whom have faced incarceration, to earn tree care certifications by transforming vacant lots into nurseries, for example.

Like everything associated with our climate crisis, we are running out of time for urban forestry. Conditions like heat, storms and air pollution that trees can help address are getting worse, which makes it tougher for us to grow the trees we need. Every year, the nation has more deaths due to severe heat than it would if we reduced urban temperatures.

As enormous as the new federal investment is, it’s just the starting point (the original proposal was $3 billion). The average cost nationally to plant and establish a tree in an urban area is $300. Five million trees planted will close a sliver of the tree equity gap. Our commitment to narrow it must grow as those trees grow.

Ben Jealous is executive director of the Sierra Club and a professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania.