Photo 209538396 © Nikos Avrantinis | Dreamstime.com
This urban neighborhood shows brown detached houses and a few bare trees.
This urban neighborhood shows brown detached houses and a few bare trees.
This urban neighborhood shows brown detached houses and a few bare trees.
This urban neighborhood shows brown detached houses and a few bare trees.
This urban neighborhood shows brown detached houses and a few bare trees.

Addressing Tree Equity

June 15, 2023
Utilities in creating equitable and sustainable urban environments.
Despite the numerous benefits of urban trees, many low-income and minority neighborhoods lack adequate tree cover. This disparity, known as "tree equity," has become an increasingly pressing issue in recent years as cities work to address systemic inequities in their urban environments.

Studies have shown that low-income and minority neighborhoods often have lower tree cover than affluent neighborhoods. This disparity can be attributed to a range of factors, including historical disinvestment in these neighborhoods, a lack of access to resources and services, and structural barriers to community engagement and decision-making.

The lack of tree cover in these neighborhoods has numerous negative impacts on the health and well-being of residents. For example, communities with lower tree cover are often hotter than those with more trees, leading to increased instances of heat-related illness and higher energy costs for residents. Additionally, neighborhoods with lower tree cover often have higher levels of air pollution and associated health problems. By addressing tree equity, utilities can be at the forefront of a movement that would have cascading impacts on low-income and underserved communities.

Combating Climate Change

Ecologically, trees provide valuable ecosystem services such as improving air quality, reducing stormwater runoff and providing habitat for wildlife. Trees also help to mitigate the urban heat island effect, which is caused by the absorption of heat by hard, impervious surfaces.

By providing shade and cooling the air, trees can help to reduce the temperature in urban areas, making them more livable for people and wildlife alike. Moreover, trees also play a crucial role in combating climate change. Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, one of the primary drivers of climate change. By sequestering carbon in their biomass, trees help to mitigate the effects of climate change and reduce the carbon footprint of urban areas.

Evidence shows that urban trees can offset a significant portion of a city's carbon emissions. For example, a study conducted in New York City found that the city's urban forest sequestered an estimated 2.2 million metric tons of carbon annually, equivalent to the emissions from more than 450,000 cars. Similar studies in other cities have shown comparable results, highlighting the critical role that urban trees can play in mitigating the impacts of climate change. Furthermore, trees can also help to reduce energy consumption, particularly during hot summer months. By providing shade and cooling the air, trees can reduce the need for air conditioning, which can help to reduce energy consumption and associated greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition to their ecological benefits, trees also provide important economic benefits. Trees can increase property values, attract businesses and reduce energy costs. Studies have shown that homes with mature trees can sell for up to 20% more than homes without trees. Trees can also reduce energy costs by providing shade in the summer and windbreaks in the winter, helping to reduce heating and cooling costs.

From a social perspective, trees provide numerous benefits as well. Trees can improve the quality of life in urban areas by providing opportunities for recreation, improving mental health and reducing stress levels. Trees also provide a sense of community and can help to promote social cohesion in urban neighborhoods. In addition, trees can provide cultural and historic value, representing a connection to the past and contributing to the character of a neighborhood. 

Planting Trees in Urban Areas

While UVM is necessary for ensuring the safe and reliable delivery of energy and other utilities, the cost of this work is often passed on to residents through higher utility bills.  In neighborhoods that lack tree cover, the cost of UVM can be unfairly borne by residents who do not benefit from the ecological, economic and social benefits of trees. This can exacerbate existing disparities in access to resources and services, further entrenching structural inequities in urban environments.

Recognizing the importance of tree equity, many cities have taken steps to address this disparity. One example is the "Million Trees" program in New York City, which was a successful initiative to plant one million new trees across the city, with a focus on low-income and minority neighborhoods. Other cities have implemented programs to increase community engagement and decision-making in tree planting and management, helping to ensure that residents have a voice in how trees are planted and maintained in their neighborhoods.

Addressing tree equity is essential to creating equitable, sustainable and resilient urban environments. By working to increase tree cover in low-income and minority neighborhoods, cities can promote the health and well-being of all residents while also mitigating the impacts of climate change and creating more livable and vibrant communities.

It is no secret that trees play a vital role in the urban environment, providing various ecological, economic, and social benefits. As cities continue to grow and expand, it is crucial to recognize trees’ critical role in creating livable, sustainable and resilient urban environments. Through thoughtful planning, management and investment, cities can maximize the benefits of trees, creating vibrant and healthy communities that benefit people, wildlife and the environment. Equally important, utilities and regulators must ensure that the cost of UVM-related expenses is distributed fairly and equitably. By doing both, cities and utilities can maximize the benefits of urban trees, creating resilient, sustainable and healthy communities for generations to come. 

Making a Difference

Trees represent the single greatest threat to electric reliability. They have been the cause of massive electric-related fires in the West and they pose public and worker safety threats when they grow too close to energized power lines. To address these problems, utilities spend billions of dollars annually pruning or removing trees.

Beyond that ongoing maintenance effort, many progressive utilities have also established programs that focus on planting trees for energy conservation to reduce customer energy consumption and mitigate the need for building more generation capabilities.

To address these issues, the UVM industry must acknowledge and understand tree equity and the reach of its impact on low-income neighborhoods. For example, UVM professionals can search the Tree Equity Score Map to see how their service territory ranks on the equity scale. This resource can help prioritize and focus utility efforts. This starting point should then lead to the development of tree planting initiatives, incorporating right tree, right place criteria supported by the utility. These initiatives should seek to address canopy coverage disparities while also maximizing trees’ environmental benefits. Equally important, the programs should result in filling empty spaces with trees that do not ultimately require ongoing maintenance work or pose a threat to electric infrastructure.      

In the words of environmental activist, Wangari Maathai, "It's the little things citizens do. That's what will make the difference. My little thing is planting trees." Addressing tree equity may seem like a small step, but it has the potential to make a significant difference in creating more equitable and sustainable urban environments. By recognizing the impact of tree equity and taking action to increase tree cover in low-income and minority neighborhoods, the UVM industry can promote the health and well-being of all residents while also mitigating the impacts of climate change and creating more livable and vibrant communities.

Utility companies and UVM managers have a critical role to play in this effort, and by incorporating right tree, right place criteria and supporting tree planting for energy conservation initiatives in those neighborhoods, they can help ensure that the benefits of trees are distributed fairly and equitably and that the integrity of electric infrastructure is also enhanced.

Lauren Cieslewicz ([email protected]) is a program manager at the UVM Company. 

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