Planting trees, growing communities: Why we support tree equity

As you drive past the Virginia state capitol to Jackson Ward in Richmond, you can see where the trees begin to disappear. Here, cooling shade is harder to find on summer days and residents with asthma suffer from poor air quality, which has given the neighborhood one of the lowest Tree Equity scores in a city that has been named one of the Asthma Capitals of the U.S. 

It wasn’t always this way: a series of policy decisions has shaped Jackson Ward, bisecting it by I-95 in the 1950s, cutting residents off from job opportunities, and creating a neighborhood more prone to flooding and extreme heat. Before the interstate, Jackson Ward and neighboring Gilpin were thriving communities covered with large, shady trees. And they’re not alone; from Richmond, Va., to Rochester, N.Y., to Rogue River, Ore., cities large and small have been torn up to make space for expanses of concrete — interstates, shopping centers and factories — and their residents have suffered from higher rates of pediatric asthma and other respiratory conditions thanks to nearby highways and their resulting vehicle emissions.

The nearly $3 billion for Tree Equity and related programs in the Build Back Better Act offer policy solutions to those policy problems by reconnecting neighborhoods, righting past environmental wrongs, and investing in urban greening through tree planting and other efforts. These investments are intended to target vulnerable communities where policies have scarred neighborhoods and left residents of places like Jackson Ward and Gilpin with up to twenty-year lower life expectancies than those of nearby, wealthier neighborhoods like Westover Hills. The bill will authorize $2.5 billion in competitive Tree Equity grants to states, tribes, nonprofits and cities, building on local momentum and hard work already happening in places like Richmond, where organizations are working to connect people to nature. 

The lack of trees in communities like Jackson Ward and Gilpin have far-reaching consequences that stretch beyond any single neighborhood. In late 2021, we saw massive flooding impact Jackson Ward and greater downtown, closing roads and displacing businesses — impacts exacerbated by a lack of trees, which we know help absorb stormwater and mitigate flooding. Similarly, across the country, we’ve seen time after time that vulnerable communities are the first to face challenges that go on to impact entire cities, with school cancellations and increased levels of air pollution that don’t abide by neighborhood boundaries or zip codes.

 

Through the Build Back Better Act, we’re investing in a cleaner, greener future for everyone. We can help reduce the more than 12,000 heat-related deaths occurring each year in the U.S., a number that’s projected to climb to 100,000 in the years ahead. Programs within the bill will also help train a new, more diverse generation of young people for urban forestry careers, modeled alongside already-flourishing private-sector programs like TAZO’s Tree Corps, which is creating permanent jobs in vulnerable communities like Jackson Ward. The Build Back Better Act will create thousands of new positions for everything from tree maintenance to service and retail industries, planting more than 38 million trees where they’re needed most.

And as these newly-planted trees mature, they will absorb tens of thousands of tons of particle pollution each year, helping to reduce emissions in our atmosphere and ensuring no U.S. city is in the running for ‘Asthma Capital’ ever again. By planting more of the right trees in our cities, we can ensure we safeguard all neighborhoods against the devastating storms, flooding and extreme weather conditions we know are coming. After all, extreme weather doesn’t care where you live, who you are, or how much you earn.

Ultimately, supporting Tree Equity and other programs like it is a nonpartisan issue. In every neighborhood, in every city, we will all benefit from making improvements that combat climate change and make our communities healthier, greener and more resilient. The Build Back Better Act helps accomplish just that, and it is a clear example of how strong policy can have a substantial impact on people’s lives with every dollar, every job and every tree. 

A. Donald McEachin represents Virginia’s Fourth District and is the co-founder of the U.S. House of Representatives United for Climate and Environmental Justice Taskforce. Jad Daley is the president and chief executive officer of American Forests.

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