Cleveland, once known as the Forest City, has lost about half of its tree canopy since the 1950s due to diseases, urban development and storms. In the neighborhoods where trees are gone, including many on the majority-Black east side of Cleveland, that loss has been keenly felt.
“If you look at an aerial map, these communities look dramatically different,” said Randy McShepard, a co-founder of the Rid-All Green Partnership, a group that leads urban agriculture projects in underserved neighborhoods of Cleveland. “It's no surprise that those communities with less tree canopy have higher incidences of asthma, heat islands and stormwater flooding.”
McShepard’s group is part of the Cleveland Tree Coalition, a collaboration of public and private organizations that seeks to plant at least 360,000 trees over the course of a decade.
Cleveland is among a growing number of cities and states that have come to regard trees as essential infrastructure. At the same time, research is showing that communities of color and low-income neighborhoods have significantly less tree canopy than wealthier, White neighborhoods. Unshaded areas often suffer from an urban heat island effect, in which heat-absorbing asphalt can send temperatures soaring up to 10 degrees hotter than in surrounding neighborhoods.
Trees also help filter air pollution and absorb stormwater runoff. Those services are becoming even more essential as climate change increases the likelihood of extreme heat and severe weather events.
Programs such as the Cleveland Tree Coalition could get a big boost from the Build Back Better legislation currently being debated in Congress. The bill would provide $2.5 billion to improve and maintain urban tree canopy, focused on underserved communities. The funding would massively scale up the U.S. Forest Service’s Urban and Community Forestry Program, which currently stands at $40 million a year.
The program provides technical assistance, financial support and education to about 7,500 communities a year.
“With limited resources, there's only so much work we can do,” said Beattra Wilson, who leads the Forest Service program. “With [Build Back Better funding], we can continue to drill into disadvantaged communities and provide confidence and trust that there can be sustained improvement in urban forestry work for years to come.”
Island territories such as American Samoa, Wilson said, are particularly vulnerable to climate change and also rely on the federal money.
But the proposed funding increase has drawn backlash in recent weeks from some Republicans in Congress and conservative commentators. Opponents have used tweets, newspaper opinion pieces and cable news critiques to characterize the investment as wasteful Democratic spending to plant “non-racist trees” in liberal cities.
But even in red states, forestry leaders say urban tree canopy is an important issue for all their residents, and they’re already working to correct inequities. In Missouri, for example, state forestry officials have funded an arborist position at a St. Louis-area nonprofit to help underserved communities plant and maintain trees.
Missouri State Forester Justine Gartner said the state uses its urban forestry funding from the Forest Service to support local partners, but the agency lacks the money to reach every community. Those programs, such as St. Louis-based Forest ReLeaf of Missouri, could grow if federal investment increases.
“The work is there; the need is there,” Gartner said. “Funding and staff have been our two biggest hurdles. If we can get communities to increase their urban canopy cover by even 1% or 2%, that has a profound effect on air quality and heat.”
‘A Seismic Moment’
The bill’s use of the phrase “tree equity,” a term championed by the conservation nonprofit organization American Forests, seems to have pulled the proposal into larger culture war battles about race and inequality. But forestry experts say the issue is not political.
“I see trees as the answer to some of the issues we see with a changing climate,” said John Erixson, director of the Nebraska Forest Service. “This bill would give us an opportunity to reinvest in our green infrastructure. We could get more work done on the ground.”
Nebraska’s urban tree canopy is trending downward, Erixson said, a worrying trajectory in a state that’s projected to see more extreme heat days and severe storms because of climate change. His agency has two community foresters that assist towns and cities with tree-planting and maintenance projects. One such program is helping families with low incomes in Lincoln remove hazardous diseased trees and replant new saplings.
Erixson said his small staff struggles to reach every community in the state, and he noted that the additional funding could allow the agency to help underserved communities in both urban and rural areas.
Earlier this year, American Forests produced an extensive analysis of urban tree canopy, showing drastic inequities in many communities. Some cities and states have pledged to use those findings to guide their urban forestry investments.
According to the National Association of State Foresters, a forum and advocacy group for agency leaders from across the country, officials are well-attuned to the gaps in their urban canopy but have lacked the money to correct those disparities.
“This could be a seismic moment in urban and community forestry,” said Keith Wood, a contractor who staffs the group’s committee on that issue. “We’re ready; we have the projects. This is a pot of money to actually get them done.”
In Louisiana, the funding boost could help communities that have fallen behind on tree maintenance, as well as homeowners whose trees are vulnerable to hurricanes and pose a threat to their houses.
“There's little access to disposable income to do tree maintenance and to replant trees,” said Robert Seemann, director of operations with Baton Rouge Green, a community environmental group that administers Louisiana’s share of the current Forest Service funding. “We're trying to build communities’ capacity up to where they can manage their own trees, and we’d absolutely speed up our pace if the funding level went up.”
‘We Have to Start Investing Now’
Some Republicans in Congress have backed tree-planting efforts as a climate solution, although the Trillion Trees Act introduced in 2020 by mostly GOP sponsors focuses on federal public lands, rather than urban areas. But environmental groups say the proposal would mostly benefit the logging industry, without making a significant dent in carbon storage or forest health.
While elected leaders debate differing tree-planting approaches at the national level, nonprofits and local governments are creating successful urban forestry models in places large and small. Many of these programs also work to provide employment opportunities in impoverished communities. Some include orchards and gardens to provide free or low-cost food to the neighborhood.
Many of those groups, however, operate on tight budgets. The proposed influx of funding would help them accelerate that work, said the Forest Service’s Wilson, rather than creating a new federal program from scratch.
“The real deployment of the work is through the state and local place-based organizations,” Wilson said. “This is an opportunity for us to invest in the organizations that are trying to improve the conditions of the landscape.”
One of those groups is The Greening of Detroit, a nonprofit in the Michigan city that has lost nearly 1 million trees since 1960. The program has planted more than 130,000 trees since it was founded in 1989, helping to raise the city’s tree canopy cover from 18% to 22%. Lionel Bradford, the group’s president, says it should be closer to 40%.
The Greening of Detroit isn’t just planting trees; its workforce program has trained hundreds of adults with barriers to employment and employed hundreds more in its summer job program for youth. Like many urban forestry organizations, the group’s model relies on putting community members to work.
“This funding could be a huge workforce development and job placement opportunity,” Bradford said. “We can train as many adults, employ as many youth and plant as many trees as funding will allow.”
In Chicago, racist practices such as redlining have left many Black neighborhoods with fewer resources and less investment from the city, including tree canopy.
“Trees were not planted then, and they're still not planted now,” said Lydia Scott, director of the Chicago Region Trees Initiative, a partnership of organizations and agencies dedicated to improving the area’s urban canopy. “You have all this concrete, and you have increased flooding, increased heat, higher asthma and cardiopulmonary issues.”
The initiative planted about 75,000 trees last year, but the region needs an additional 22 million to meet its goal of increasing canopy cover by 4 percentage points, reaching 27% by 2050.
Municipal leaders also say the funding is crucial. Brett KenCairn, the senior policy adviser for natural climate solutions in Boulder, Colorado, noted that trees planted today won’t create shade for 20 years.
“We have to start investing now, especially with the changes that are coming due to climate change,” he said. “And we have to maintain and protect the existing canopy.”
Boulder is launching a campaign this spring to determine where it should target its tree-planting efforts for maximum heat reduction. KenCairn also serves as director of the Urban Drawdown Initiative, a national group that promotes carbon removal strategies in cities.
He pointed to a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists projecting the effects of extreme heat under climate change. By midcentury, the report found, a third of America’s urban areas with populations of 50,000 or more will see 30 or more days per year with a heat index above 105 degrees.
“We really need to think about urban forests differently,” he said. “They're not an aesthetic backdrop. They are absolutely critical infrastructure.”