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Bringing Back Trees To "Forest City's" Redlined Areas Helps Residents And The Climate

The city of Cleveland is trying to address two big problems at the same time: climate change and racial and economic disparities.
The city of Cleveland is trying to address two big problems at the same time: climate change and racial and economic disparities.

On the corner of East 123rd Street and Imperial Avenue, in Cleveland, Shirley Bell-Wheeler watches over a community garden with freshly planted raspberries, purple asparagus, and a little apple tree.

"Trees are trees, but fruit trees are just better," she says with a hearty laugh. Bell-Wheeler is a full-time teacher aide, part-time gardener, and the guardian of all green things in this neighborhood. She wishes there were more of them.

"In other neighborhoods, say suburban neighborhoods, you would see a big beautiful tree on every tree lawn," she says, referring to the strip of land between the sidewalk and curb.

The lack of trees reflects some of her neighborhood's problems. Mount Pleasant was hard-hit as people and money left for the suburbs over the past 50 years. "We have a lot of abandoned houses," she says, "and when they went through and tore down all the abandoned houses, they also tore down the trees on the curb."

As the globe heats up, cities across America are taking a fresh look at their trees. They keep urban neighborhoods cooler, make air conditioning bills manageable and, most importantly, protect lives during heat waves. They help capture stormwater runoff, and as trees grow they remove heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the air. Some cities are now moving to increase their tree canopy, in part to shield against the worst effects of climate change.

Those efforts also are aimed at attacking long-standing economic and racial inequity. Researchers have found that low-income neighborhoods generally have fewer trees than wealthier ones.

In Cleveland, a coalition of city agencies, nonprofit organizations, and corporations has endorsed an ambitious plan to expand tree cover from its current level of 19 percent to 30 percent by 2040. That would require planting 24,000 trees each year for the next ten years, along with better maintenance of existing trees.

Trees in the Mount Pleasant area, Bell-Wheeler says, only half-joking, deserve the same attention as forests in the Amazon. "If it's vital to other people, it's vital to us, too!"

The tree canopy in Cleveland, once commonly called "Forest City," has been shrinking. "We've lost about 200,000 trees, probably, since the 1950s," says Sandra Albro, director of community partnerships at Cleveland's Holden Forests and Gardens, which operates the Cleveland Botanical Garden. The city has now pledged to reverse that trend as part of its official plan to deal with climate change and promote economic and racial equity at the same time.

Yet some parts of the Cleveland metro area remain relatively rich in trees. Roughly a mile to the east of the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, towering trees line the streets of Shaker Heights, a town just outside Cleveland's city limits. Shaker Heights is much wealthier than Mount Pleasant: the median household income there is $87,000, compared to less than $30,000 in Mt. Pleasant. Just over half of Shaker Heights residents are non-Hispanic White, compared to less than five percent in Mount Pleasant.

Jacquie Gillon, who works with an environmental group in Cleveland called the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, says the contrast raises a question. "The fact that Shaker maintained its leafyness but Mount Pleasant didn't, what does that say to you? There's no equity!" she says. That pattern is visible in many American cities, she says. "When you hit the Black community, it's not as green anymore."

American Forests, a environmental group, just unveiled an online tool that shows the level of tree cover in 150,000 urban neighborhoods and compares that canopy to what the group considers optimal. It also computes a "tree equity score" for each neighborhood that factors in such things as the percentage of people in that neighborhood who are living in poverty.

Albro says tree disparities in Cleveland reflect broader patterns of racial discrimination. Just as banks refused to loan money for homes in neighborhoods with increasing Black populations, the city government scrimped on money for infrastructure — including trees — in those neighborhoods. "There was an intentional decision not to plant and maintain tree canopy," Albro says.

As a result, she says, those neighborhoods are deprived of the benefits that trees can provide, including "stress reduction and an easier environment for our heart and lungs, like cleaner air and lower temperatures."

Lower temperatures can save lives. One recent study estimated that more than 5000 people die each year in the U.S. from heat-related illness. Other researchers found that in a large majority of American cities, people of color were more likely to live in neighborhoods that suffer from hotter temperatures, driven in part by a lack of tree cover.

Yet poorer neighborhoods arguably need trees the most. Their residents often lack air conditioning or suffer disproportionately from poor health. There's also evidence that trees can help filter fine particulate pollution from fossil fuel combustion, which is linked to many health problems.

In addition, some researchers have found clues that trees and green spaces can promote emotional health. That's what Shirley Bell-Wheeler appreciates most. A block down the street from her community garden, there's a new park, called the Garden of Eleven Angels. It commemorates eleven women, victims of a serial killer who haunted Mount Pleasant fifteen years ago. A line of eleven young trees curves through manicured green grass. Bell-Wheeler says the beauty makes her feel better, "like we matter, somebody cares about us," she says. "It's a statement. Of value."

Cleveland's tree planting plan, though, has been long on aspiration and short on follow-through, so far. Planting that many trees would cost just over $8 million per year, and it's not clear who will pay. It would also require extensive cooperation with property owners, since much of the tree-planting would have to happen on private land, such as backyards.

Albro admits that "collectively, we are still falling behind." But she says the groups are laying the groundwork for a big scale-up in the future, which will include expanding the production capacity of tree nurseries. Public enthusiasm, meanwhile, is high, she says. Holden Forest and Gardens recently unveiled a campaign called People for Trees, and within two months almost a thousand individuals pledged to plant trees on their own properties. "I love the energy around trees," Albro says.

It's not enough just to plant a tree and walk away, though, says Indigo Bishop, a community organizer now working with St. Luke's Foundation. She discovered that when she worked with one public housing complex in Cleveland. Trees were dropping branches onto cars. Their roots were breaking up the sidewalks. "I was just blown away by the fact that people were like, 'Tear out the trees! Tear them out!'" she says.

The lesson, Bishop says, is that reforesting a city takes careful planning, with appropriate species planted in good locations, along with continued care of those trees.

There's one particular oak tree in Cleveland that symbolizes some of the city's historical pain — and its hopes.

It's tucked away behind a high school in the Old Brooklyn neighborhood. Jesse Owens, the track star, planted it in 1936. It was one of four saplings he'd received, one for each gold medal he won, at that year's Berlin Olympic games.

But Jeffrey Verespej, executive director of the Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation, says Owens didn't go to that school or even live nearby. He just trained on the school's track.

"Old Brooklyn at that time was an exclusively White neighborhood in the wealthiest part of town, with the newest high school and the fanciest track," he says. "So the track star trained in Old Brooklyn, even though he was from the east side of Cleveland."

Tree experts at Holden Forest and Gardens cut a bud from this old oak and grew a new tree from it. Last month, they carried the little sapling to a part on Cleveland's east side for a ceremonial planting in a park.

Tyrone Owens, a distant cousin of the track star, was there to help. "Time passes on," he said. "You'd rather not go back and try to figure out what they were trying to do back in those days. You probably want to just go forward. And this is progress right here."

The city plans to plant three more clones of the Jesse Owens oak tree in Cleveland. They'll spread their limbs in all parts of the city.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.