U.S. cities that have been forced to rely on nonprofit groups and corporations to drive tree-planting efforts and boosting their urban “canopy” could soon get a new ally—the federal government.
The bipartisan infrastructure bill (H.R. 3684) moving in the Senate this week would expand federal support for mapping gaps via a Healthy Streets Program. The bill, which authorizes $100 million a year for five years under a federal grant program, also would put more efforts into tree cover for the poorest neighborhoods, where sidewalks are more rarely shaded from mature trees.
The funding could cover the purchasing and planting of trees and development of tree canopy plans. It also would encourage cities to use porous pavement—more permeable types of concrete, asphalt, and pavers—to absorb stormwater and reduce urban hot spots.
“Trees follow wealth,” said Leslie Berckes, director of programs for Trees Forever, a nonprofit based in Des Moines, Iowa. “Underresourced communities don’t have as many trees. We see that with increased concrete,” she said, and trees “in poorer shape” in lower-income neighborhoods.
Cities including Chicago and Washington have accelerated tree plantings to slow stormwater runoff, battle rising temperatures and meet broad sustainability goals.
But plantings seen as vital to combat a rise in urban temperatures are increasingly viewed as an opportunity to address environmental inequities, with the Biden administration vowing more resources will be directed to low-income and minority communities traditionally ill-served by big transportation projects.
States, tribal governments, metropolitan planners, and nonprofit groups seeking the grants under the infrastructure bill would need to explain how their projects would boost the quality of life for low-income and disadvantaged communities. The measure also directs the Transportation Department to give priority to projects that benefit those communities.
Transportation Department grants could be used to help draw up detailed maps of urban heat islands for cities, particularly neighborhoods with the worst hots spots, extreme heat, or elevated air pollution. The funding also could be used to develop comprehensive tree canopy assessments.
Beyond Congress, some cities are trying to fix the urban tree canopy problem by framing tree plantings as one way big U.S. companies can reach their climate and sustainability goals.
One model that has been gaining a foothold involves landowners planting trees, then providing all the information about their project—including the location and number and species of trees planted or acres preserved—to a carbon registry.
More tree planting has gotten some backing among Republicans looking for their own approaches to address climate change without expanding government regulation. Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) has led a “Trillion Trees” campaign with legislation included in a House GOP climate package first unveiled in the last Congress by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).
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Linking Corporate Goals
The operator of one such registry, City Forest Credits, independently verifies the accuracy of the data and assigns carbon credits to the landowner, which can then sell the credits to a corporation.
The money is used to pay for the tree planting and maintenance, and the corporation gets to claim the credits for their sustainability efforts.
The model is projected to help Chicago increase its canopy by 20 million trees by 2050, according to Lydia Scott, executive director of the Chicago Region Trees Initiative. The Chicago region has lost 10 million of its 13 million ash trees in the last 10 years, Scott said.
The Chicago Region Trees Initiative is piloting two projects, including one to convert an agricultural field back into forest, which so far has resulted in 30,000 new trees.
Berckes, of the Iowa-based Trees Forever group, said they are also using the carbon credit approach. So far it hasn’t sold any of the credits it has produced, but the group is exploring bundling the credits it generated in 2020 and 2021 plantings in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids over the coming months, she said.
Both the Chicago and Des Moines projects are trying to help trees flourish in low-income communities of color. The Chicago Region Trees Initiative is working on targeting corporations whose operations affect environmental justice communities as potential investors, and Berckes said focusing on those neighborhoods is a “core pillar” of Trees Forever’s work.
“People in wealthier communities tend to demand a lot more, so they get the resources a lot quicker” than poorer communities, she said.
To Mark McPherson, executive director of City Forest Credits, the carbon credit model is an effective way of counteracting city budget writers who often see trees as an expense, not an asset.
“For years, we’ve watched urban forest people never have enough money for tree loss,” McPherson said. “Rather than hope cities will magically find a lot more money, let’s connect them with private sector funding.”
The nation’s capital conducted a broad tree canopy plan in 2013 which pledged to increase the tree canopy across Washington to 40% by 2032. The effort has been backed by non-profit and philanthropic groups including Casey Trees, which launched in 2002 to reverse significant declines in tree cover, including a 16% loss of the district’s tree canopy between 1973 and 1997.
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