DC’s Plan for Urban Trees Fails to Mention Equity

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In July 2011, the District of Columbia announced Sustainable DC – a plan to make DC the greenest, healthiest, and most livable city in the nation. One of the plan’s major initiatives aims to increase the District’s urban tree canopy, as investing in trees has been shown to benefit ecosystems, increase property values, and improve public health and safety. The District’s goal is to cover 40 percent of the city in a lush tree canopy by 2032 – a feat which will require the District and its partners to plant at least 10,850 trees every year. In 2013, the DC government released the District of Columbia Urban Tree Canopy Plan to provide historical context and planning efforts to reach this goal. However, the Urban Tree Canopy Plan fails to mention one key factor: equity. 

Urban tree canopy is defined as the layer of leaves, branches, and stems of trees that cover the ground when viewed from above, particularly in metropolitan areas. Increasing urban tree cover also increases and improves urban green spaces and urban greenness, both of which measure the vegetation and ecosystems covering the land in urban areas. Urban green spaces provide a host of health, economic, social, and environmental benefits. Spending time in green spaces has been associated with lower stress levels, longer life expectancies, lower premature death rates, and better outcomes with chronic diseases. Greenness is also known to have positive impacts on blood pressure, pregnancy outcomes, and mental health; it has even been associated with lower crime rates and increased workplace productivity. Additionally, urban greenness provides a variety of environmental benefits such as reducing urban heat islands, offsetting greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants, and mitigating stormwater and potential flooding.

Although a health-promoting neighborhood asset, green spaces are notoriously lacking in disadvantaged and disenfranchised communities, including communities of color. Around the country, the rich enjoy almost 50 percent more greenery in their environments compared to low-income communities. In predominantly white areas, tree canopy covers about 34 percent of the land; in communities of color, tree canopy is closer to 19 percent. Neighborhoods with a higher proportion of racial and ethnic minorities not only have less greenness but are also losing more greenness over time. Since urban trees and forests provide a variety of benefits to people, their presence or absence in urban neighborhoods may significantly contribute to inequitable wealth, health, and social outcomes.

Yet, the District of Columbia Urban Tree Plan fails to include many important sociodemographic factors (which would provide a robust measure of potential disparities) in their plan to identify areas for prioritizing tree planting. To note, the District does not mention prioritizing sociodemographic equity, nor does it mention the use of race, ethnicity, age, gender, disadvantage, disability, or immigration status to measure such disparities. Consequently, they fail to include multiple measures of equity in their plans: opening the city up to further inequities in a variety of outcomes.

In fact, the plan only details a few factors that “may” be used to identify priority areas in tree planting, including: sewershed data and stormwater volume/pollutant data (to prioritize planting for stormwater management); income data (to prioritize planting for environmental justice); and asthma rate data (to prioritize planting for health benefits). Yet, to this day, the District has not released which factors have actually been used to prioritize planting areas. Moreover, the only two factors that attempt to incorporate equity in these prioritization metrics are the suggested use of income and asthma rate data. However, such one-dimensional data measures are not nearly robust enough to measure multifaceted concepts of justice and equity. Moreover, these suggestions are just that: suggestions. Since the original plan’s release in 2013, no subsequent plans have been made to ensure that equity is prioritized in the city’s progress toward achieving 40 percent tree cover. Although the District Department of Transportation’s (DDOT) Urban Forestry Division (UFD) tracks the city’s progress toward this goal every five years, no updates have been made to the plan since its publication. Thus, there is nothing stopping the District from being able to state that 40 percent of DC is covered in trees, even if the majority of those trees are located in the predominantly wealthy, White neighborhoods of Northwest DC (as they currently are).  

Image Source Left: Urban Tree Canopy by Census Block Groups Image Source Right: Race and Ethnicity by Census Block Groups

Although more recent assessments of DC’s urban tree canopy have begun to analyze the city’s progress utilizing more robust measures of equity via spatial analyses, not one assessment includes race or ethnicity as a sociodemographic factor of equity in its analysis. This complete lack of foresight regarding the inherent racial and ethnic disparities in access to trees and urban green spaces is beyond negligible, clearly demonstrating the District’s priorities – or lack thereof – regarding environmental “justice.” 

DC could improve the Urban Tree Canopy Plan by updating the plan to prioritize equity at its center. First, these measures of equity must be multifaceted, robust measures of equity that include racial equity as a criterion in planting prioritization. Second, the plan should dissect tree planting priority by census block group and prioritize the most disparate and disadvantaged census block groups in tree planting. This way, every census block group is analyzed to ensure that the city achieves 40 percent tree cover for all census block groups rather than 40 percent cover for the city as a whole. Overall, these changes would enable more just and equitable access to trees and urban green spaces for a variety of minoritized populations.

As a city whose residents are majority people of color, DC must do better to ensure that it plans to make DC the greenest, healthiest, and most livable city for all its residents – not just the White and the wealthy.

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