We often plant trees as a symbolic gesture. We plant them on Earth Day in honor of clean air and sustainability. We also plant trees to commemorate people and events.
But trees do more than provide shade and improve landscapes. They are also critical to public health.
In Sacramento, which the American Lung Association named fifth worst U.S. city for air quality and where temperatures increasingly reach triple-digit highs, we must take the importance of trees seriously.
An investigation by Sacramento Bee reporter Michael Finch II reveals a vast inequality in Sacramento. Wealthier neighborhoods have a lush canopy of trees while poorer neighborhoods generally lack them.
A color-coded map of Sacramento’s tree coverage shows darker shades of green toward the city’s center, in neighborhoods like East Sacramento, Land Park and parts of midtown. The deeper the green, the denser the foliage. Lower-income neighborhoods on the edges of the city, like Meadowview, Del Paso Heights and Fruitridge, are devoid of trees.
Those neighborhoods, by having less tree cover, are more susceptible to the threat of extreme heat – and Sacramento is getting hotter.
The county is expected to see an average annual number of 19 to 31 100-degree plus days by 2050, according to a 2017 county-commissioned report. That’s compared to an average of four three-digit temperature days a year between 1961 and 1990. How hot it gets will depend on how well governments curb fossil fuel use and slow global warming.
Higher temperatures mean declining air quality and increased risk of heat death. Heat also creates conditions that lead to the build up of ground-level ozone, a pollutant known to irritate lungs.
Ozone is especially bad for people with asthma, the very old and very young, and people who work outside. The Bee’s investigation also reveals that neighborhoods without tree cover have higher rates of asthma.
That’s why planting trees is so important to protect health and adapt for climate change.
“Trees help combat unseen hazards to human health like ozone and particle pollution. They can help lower street-level temperatures near schools and bus stops where some of the most vulnerable like children and the elderly frequent most,” writes Finch.
The Sacramento City Council has an opportunity to remedy our city’s unequal tree canopy cover when it finalizes updates to the city’s Urban Forest Master Plan early next year. The plan needs to prioritize areas that currently lack trees.
Advocates for these neighborhoods worry they’ll be left behind again. Cindy Blain, executive director of the nonprofit California ReLeaf, accused the city of having “no sense of urgency” around the issue of unequal tree cover.
The city’s urban forester, Kevin Hocker, acknowledged the disparity but raised doubts about the city’s ability to plant in certain places.
“We know in general that we can plant more trees but in some areas of town – due to their design or the way they’re configured –opportunities to plant trees don’t exist,” he said.
Despite any challenges in the way of evening out tree cover, there are also opportunities in the form of grassroots community efforts for the city to lean into.
In Del Paso Heights, the Del Paso Heights Growers’ Alliance has already been working to plant hundreds of trees.
Alliance organizer Fatima Malik, a member of the city parks and community enrichment commission, said she wants to partner with the city “to help them do their job better” planting and caring for trees.
Other neighborhoods also have tree planting and care efforts, sometimes in coordination with Sacramento Tree Foundation. Residents go out and plant trees and care for them without the city getting involved at all. The city should look for creative ways to support existing efforts so they may cover more areas with less tree cover.
People are willing to help. The new master plan for trees must make full use of that.
The City Council has a duty to give residents their best shot at a healthy life. It can do this by prioritizing new tree planting and ongoing tree care for neighborhoods with less canopy.