Trees as a Health Equity Issue

by Madison Cavallaro

At some point, we have all read the infamous book, The Lorax, but if it's been a while, I'll do a recap. The Lorax stands for the trees, and honestly, I'm going to follow his lead. We can all learn a little something from the Lorax, and although there are many ways to interpret the book, one of the most relevant life lessons and maybe most controversial is the hot-take on the downsides of capitalism, but we'll have to save that complex matter for another article.

Trees and capitalism? I promise it's not a stretch. Trees are radiating girl boss energy, and their most critical roles remain unbeknown to many. The giveaway is the impact trees have on reducing greenhouse gases. But not often do we discuss the generally improved health outcomes of those even within 250 meters of tree coverage. Trees have demonstrated their positive contributions to health by removing air pollen, reducing stress, and promoting physical activity and social communities. As our climate heats up and urban/metropolitan areas keep growing, trees seem to be the solution outlined by environmentalists, green activists, and sustainable developers. Yet, even as we acknowledge trees can improve emotional and physical wellbeing, we already see a clear divide in what communities are reaping the benefits of trees and those who aren't. Research shows that areas that received racial discrimination from as early as the 1930s had the lowest amounts of greenspaces in 2010. In racial equity issues, we can file trees and greenspaces under major health equity issues.


The Lorax Had a Point

Trees are so much more than the carbon holders they are coined as. Trees will advance the nation. Trees create career opportunities in tree maintenance and mapping. Experts predict a 10% increase in entry-level urban forestry positions over the next decade, which will improve economic mobility. Trees can also reduce utility costs by blocking winds and providing shade. Trees even clean water and prevent extreme flooding by absorbing rain and snowfall.

Of course, trees are great to be around, but they quite literally have a domino effect on the health determinate's of the community as well as crime rates. Take Chestnut Hill, an area in northwest Philadelphia with 60% of the surface area covered with trees. And to no surprise, the median income of the area is 133,000. In Nicetown-Tioga, just 5 miles away, where the median income is 37,000, there is only 6% coverage of trees. With more trees, individuals will experience direct and indirect benefits to their health and well being;

  • lowered pollution
  • Increased physical activity
  • Decreased aggression and violence
  • Reduced crime
  • Reduced of stress
  • Increased cognitive development and education
  • Promotes the economy and increase resources
  • Reduced Urban heat
  • Stores carbon 

In lower-income areas, individuals will not experience the same advantage. This is much more than just aesthetic. This is a moral and health obligation. In just 2018 alone, 10,000 deaths were linked with poor air quality. Trees must be spread equally throughout all communities, not just the wealthiest. This "home-grown" discriminatory practice is present in all cities across the country, leading to most tree coverage currently enjoyed by the wealthiest. As our cities heat up, we expect heat-related deaths to increase by tenfold and primarily impact low-income individuals. With the evidence of trees doing only good things for human and environmental health, you may be asking, why are there startling differences among communities? Well, we have discriminating policies to thank for that.


It’s the Discrimination For Me 

From what is known about racism in The United States, this should come as no shocker that predominantly white neighborhoods have ⅓ of tree surface. Compared to communities of color, where there is hardly ⅕ of tree coverage by area. Research suggests this disparity is due to redlining, which refers to the segregating housing policies that are decades old, yet still leaving their mark today. The efforts of the FHA (federal housing association) in these times furthered segregation by building suburban communities that pushed people of color into urban housing projects. Sure enough, these redlined communities line up closely with maps demonstrating the lack of tree canopy today. The difference is so drastic that 522 million trees need to be planted in these metro areas to reach tree equity balance.

Unfortunately, the issue of trees inequity cannot be solved by just going out and planting a tree. It's a bit more complicated than that and is why this needs to be a central focus of public health intervention. Those in low-income urban communities experience a wide range of disadvantages. Less tree canopy can be categorized as another unfortunate result of America's health inequity and racial bias infrastructure. It seems absurd that trees could have such an impact on a person's life course, but it is no exaggeration. Although these pathways are not entirely understood, scientists are regarding the collective efficacy associated, notable. With green spaces comes increased social interaction leading to a shared trust and willingness to intervene for the common good. Trees' contribution in deterring violence, lowering stress and fatigue, and moderating temperature make them another multifaceted tool in addressing systemic issues experienced every day in the United States. As we progress in addressing health equity issues, we can start exploring more of the health benefits of trees, like using them in nature-based therapy or defeating capitalism. Sheesh, a girl can dream. 

Please visit Racial Equity Tools, Earth Justice, and Climate Justice Alliance for the latest news on Environmental Justice and learn how to take action today. 


Sources: American Forests / 2 NPR / 3 NY Times / 4 The Association Between Urban Tree Cover and Gun Assault: A Case-Control and Case-Crossover Study / 5 Urban Trees and Human Health: A Scoping Review / 6 The Benefits of Trees for Livable and Sustainable Communities. Plants, People, Planet


Meet our Contributor

Madison is an Eating Disorder Consoler in Los Angeles. She graduated from Emmanuel College and Northeastern University in Boston with a B.S. and M.S. and specializes in health science and nutrition. Throughout her career, she has aspired to impact the nutrition field in a positive way. With her background and interest in sustainability, health, and wellness, she aims to address limitations in health by making these topics more accessible to communities and individuals. 

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