For More Equitable and Livable Cities, Consider Trees
Urban forests encompass all the trees in a community, from those in parks and along trails, to street trees in neighborhoods and those found on private property. Recognizing that trees serve innumerable benefits, cities across the state have developed urban forestry management plans (UFMPs) to provide a coordinated, long-term vision for the urban tree canopy. As our cities and other urban areas continue to grow and change, trees assume an important role in the continued livability of where we live, work, and play.
While the benefits of trees are well-documented, some studies have found that not everyone enjoys these benefits due to historic disinvestment in certain neighborhoods. Per this Bloomberg CityLab article, analysis from the Tree Equity Score found that low-income communities have 41% fewer trees than higher-income areas, contributing to the urban heat island effect, higher energy costs, poor air quality, more stormwater runoff, and a less desirable public realm. The article further notes that this analysis adds to “…mounting research on the unequal distribution of trees… any map of tree cover in a U.S. city likely reflects its racial and socioeconomic divide.” Residents in these areas experience heat-related and other health problems, with impacts felt more acutely by vulnerable populations (e.g., seniors, young children, people without access to air conditioning, etc.).
Understanding the uneven distribution of trees at the local level can help inform a community’s urban forestry work and result in more equitable outcomes. This blog discusses the benefits of urban trees and includes examples of UFMPs with equity considerations.
The classic children’s book, A Tree is Nice, captures some key benefits of trees, like aesthetics (“Trees make the woods. They make everything beautiful.”), healthy foods (“If it is an apple tree, we can climb it to pick the apples.”), and habitat (“Birds build nests in trees and live there.”). Additional benefits are explored more fully below.
Mitigating climate change and improving air quality: Per the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: "By reducing energy demand, trees and vegetation decrease the production of associated air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. They also remove air pollutants and store and sequester carbon dioxide."
Improving community health and well-being: Research links trees with lower stress levels and reduced obesity rates. Some doctors are even prescribing time in nature for better mental health. Cleaner air also means lower rates of cardiac disease, strokes, and asthma.
Cooling the air: According to The Nature Conservancy, areas with trees can cool city streets by up to four degrees, saving lives during heat waves and cutting energy bills. A Beat the Heat study conducted in Spokane identified how urban heat is experienced in different areas of the city and will inform mitigation strategies, including planting more trees.
Managing stormwater: Trees serve as part of a community’s green infrastructure, filtering pollutants and managing stormwater runoff. The U.S. Forest Service notes that 100 mature trees catch about 139,000 gallons of rainwater each year.
Increasing property values and saving money: Trees beautify communities, thereby increasing property values and attracting new businesses and shoppers. They also save money through reduced costs for stormwater management, energy, and more.
Long-Range Planning for the Urban Tree Canopy
UFMPs serve as a useful tool in ensuring the future health and sustainability of urban forests. These plans not only set out a unified long-term vision for a community’s tree canopy, they also address specific issues like heritage trees (see Seattle’s Heritage Tree Program) and the wildland-urban interface, and include implementation actions like planting programs (see Everett's Tree Program) and tree protection ordinances (see Covington’s Tree Ordinance).
According to the UFMP Toolkit, effective UFMPs include these key elements:
- A vision statement,
- An analysis of existing conditions,
- Goals and objectives, and
- Implementation actions, including monitoring.
Before developing a UFMP, urban forestry goals and policies should be included in your comprehensive plan, not only to form a solid policy basis for this work but also as a means of coordinating urban tree canopy goals with other goals, like affordable housing, parks, transportation, and more. For example, Tacoma has an Urban Forest section in its Environment Chapter with goals and policies related to canopy targets, best management practices, and its Tree City USA designation. Tacoma’s UFMP then references its alignment with related comprehensive plan policies.
Once communities have established their policy basis and are ready to dive into the planning process, they should develop a project scope with an inclusive community engagement strategy to guide this work. As Bellingham develops its first-ever UFMP, it has conducted extensive outreach with a focus on engaging protected classes, vulnerable populations, and typically under-represented and marginalized communities. An Engagement Summary Report provides an overview of the city’s engagement process and next steps.
Assessments of urban forests typically include documenting the location and extent of tree canopy — including street trees — with tools like LiDAR, four-band orthoimagery, and ESRI’s ArcGIS Pro. Some communities use i-Tree, a free tool from the U.S. Forest Service, to assess and estimate the benefits of individual trees. Walla Walla used the i-Tree Eco application to determine that the total replacement cost for the city’s trees is $40,800,000.
Tools like the Tree Equity Score can be particularly helpful for smaller cities with fewer resources. The site’s interactive tools assist communities in identifying baseline conditions, priorities, and goals for increasing tree canopy cover equitably. For example, Renton's Urban Forest Management Plan highlights results from this tool, including tree equity scores by census block groups and comparison scores for nearby cities.
Using feedback collected through the existing conditions analysis and community engagement process, communities can then develop the main content of the plan, including goals, objectives, and implementation actions. Implementation of specific strategies like code changes, education, maintenance, and monitoring require not only funding but also adequate staffing, inter-departmental coordination, and public-private partnerships.
A few examples of tree equity strategies in UFMPs can be found in Burien, Shoreline, Seattle, and Vancouver.
The Burien Urban Forest Stewardship Plan (2020) notes that “Green Burien will promote equity in tree planting initiatives and work with partners such as Highline Public Schools” (see more on this project). It also includes a Centering Equity and Diversity section.
In the Shoreline 20-Year Forest Management Plan one of the recommendations is:
Maintaining an inclusive and successful volunteer program that encourages participation from a diverse network of individuals, families, schools, businesses, and nonprofits. Centering equity so that the program encourages residents to participate in urban-forest enhancement in their own neighborhood, in ways that are accessible to all.
Strategy 1 in the Seattle Urban Forest Management Plan (2020) includes the following priority actions:
Consider first the needs of environmental justice communities in all urban forestry actions (by) 1. creat(ing) a program to improve access for people in environmental equity priority communities to internships, apprenticeships, and jobs in urban forestry; 2. focus(ing) tree planting in environmental equity priority communities; and 3. focus(ing) tree, landscape, and natural area maintenance in environmental equity priority communities.
Vancouver's Urban Forestry Work Plan (2021-2022) includes prioritizing working with underserved communities as part of a potential hazard tree abatement / save-a-tree program. Also see the city’s Urban Forestry Management Plan (2007) and a January 27, 2023 Columbian article on updating the plan.
Funding sources for implementation of UFMPs range from general funds and stormwater programs to partnerships with the private sector and grants. Through its Urban and Community Forestry Program, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources provides grants, education, and technical assistance (see awardees from the 2022 grant funding cycle and an urban forestry project in Tacoma funded through this program).
In 2021, the Washington State Legislature mandated that at least 50% of the funding or assistance provided by HB 1216 be used to benefit vulnerable populations in or within one-quarter mile of highly impacted communities, as defined by tools like the Washington Environmental Health Disparities Map.
There’s no better time to plan for the management of our urban forests to ensure the continued livability of our communities. While much more goes into UFMPs and their implementation, hopefully this blog has given you some ideas to help you consider equity as you develop and implement these plans. For more information, see these links:
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