ReLeaf in the News: SacBee

How Sacramento’s urban forest divides the city, in health and in wealth

OCTOBER 10, 2019 05:30 AM,

The tree canopy of Land Park is a marvel by most measures. Like a crown, London plane trees and even occasional redwoods rise well above rooftops to shade the well-tended streets and houses during Sacramento’s scorching summers.

More trees can be found in Land Park than in almost any other neighborhood. And it affords benefits both seen and unseen by the naked eye — better health, for one, and quality of life.

But there aren’t many Land Parks in Sacramento. In fact, only about a dozen neighborhoods have tree canopies that come close to the neighborhood south of downtown, according to a city-wide assessment.

Critics say the line that divides those places often comes down to wealth.

Communities with a higher-than-average number of trees are places like Land Park, East Sacramento and the Pocket also have the largest concentrations of high-income households, data shows. Meanwhile, low- to moderate-income areas like Meadowview, Del Paso Heights, Parkway and Valley Hi have fewer trees and less shade.

Trees cover nearly 20 percent of the city’s 100 square miles. In Land Park, for example, the canopy covers 43 percent — more than double the city-wide average. Now compare that with the 12 percent tree canopy coverage found in Meadowview in south Sacramento.

For many urban foresters and city planners, that’s troubling not only because under-planted places are more exposed to hot temperatures but because tree-lined streets are associated with better overall health. More trees improve air quality, contributing to lower rates of asthma and obesity, studies have found. And they can mitigate the extreme effects of climate change in a future where days will be hotter and drier.

Yet it’s one of Sacramento’s seldom-discussed inequities, some say. The imbalance has not gone unnoticed. Advocates say the city has an opportunity to address years of lax tree planting when it adopts an urban forest master plan next year.

But some worry these neighborhoods will get left behind again.

“There is at times this willingness not to notice things because it takes place in another neighborhood,” said Cindy Blain, executive director of the nonprofit California ReLeaf, which plants trees throughout the state. She attended a public meeting earlier this year held by the city to discuss the new master plan and recalled it lacked detail on the issue of “equity.”

“There wasn’t a lot of there there in terms of the city’s response,” Blain said. “You’re looking at these dramatically different numbers — like 30 percentage point differences — and there seemed to be no sense of urgency.”

The City Council was expected to adopt the plan by spring 2019, according to the city’s website. But officials said it will not be finalized until early next year. Meanwhile, the city said it’s developing canopy goals based on the land use in each neighborhood.

As climate change rises in the pecking order of urban priorities, some major cities around the country have turned to trees as a solution.

In Dallas, officials recently documented for the first time areas that are hotter than their rural surroundings and how trees can help lower temperatures. Earlier this year, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti vowed to plant some 90,000 trees in the next decade. The mayor’s plan included a pledge to double the canopy in “low-income, severely heat impacted” neighborhoods.

Kevin Hocker, the city’s urban forester, agreed that there is a disparity. He said the city and local tree advocates may be divided on how each would fix it. Hocker believes they can use existing programs but advocates want more radical action. However, one idea is shared between the two camps: Trees are a necessity but they require money and dedication to keep them alive.

Hocker said he does not feel like the disparity issue has been “well-defined.”

“Everybody acknowledges that there is unequal distribution in the city. I don’t think anyone has clearly defined why that is and what actions are possible to address that,” Hocker said. “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.”

Many of Sacramento’s oldest neighborhoods formed just outside of downtown. Each decade after World War II brought on a new wave of development until the city brimmed with new subdivisions as the population surged.

For a while, many of the forming neighborhoods lacked trees. It wasn’t until 1960 when the city passed the first law that required tree planting in new subdivisions. Then cities were financially pinched by Proposition 13, a 1979 voter-approved initiative that limited property tax dollars historically used for government services.

Soon, the city retreated from servicing trees in front yards and the burden shifted to individual neighborhoods for upkeep. So when trees died, as they often do, from disease, pests or old age, few people might have noticed or had the means to change it.

The same pattern continues today.

“Sacramento is a town of the haves and the have nots,” said Kate Riley, who lives in the River Park neighborhood. “If you look at the maps, we’re one of the haves. We’re a neighborhood that has trees.”

Trees cover nearly 36 percent of River Park and most household incomes are higher than the median for the region. It was first built nearly seven decades ago along the American River.

Riley admits some were not always taken care of very well and others died of old age, which is why she’s volunteered to plant more than 100 trees since 2014. Tree maintenance can be a weighty and expensive task for the “have-not areas” to do alone, she said.

“A lot of systemic issues are exacerbating this problem with the inequity in tree canopy cover,” said Riley, who sits on the city’s urban forest master plan advisory committee. “It’s just another example of how the city really needs to up its game and make this a city that has fair opportunities for everybody.”

To better understand the issue, The Bee created a data set from a recent assessment of neighborhood-level canopy estimates and combined it with demographic data from the U.S. Census Bureau. We also gathered public data on the number of trees maintained by the city and mapped it to each neighborhood.

In some cases, the differences are stark between a place like River Park and Del Paso Heights, a community in north Sacramento that borders Interstate 80. The tree canopy is around 16 percent and most household incomes fall below $75,000.

It’s one of the reasons that Fatima Malik has planted hundreds of trees at parks in and around Del Paso Heights. Not long after joining the city’s parks and community enrichment commission, Malik recalled being upbraided in a community meeting about the condition of one park’s trees.

The trees were dying and there seemed to be no plan for the city to replace them. The residents wanted to know what she was going to do about it. As Malik tells it, she challenged the room by asking what are “we” going to do about the park.

The Del Paso Heights Growers’ Alliance was created out of that meeting. By the end of the year, the organization will complete work from its second grant planting more than 300 trees at five city parks and a community garden.

Even so, Malik admits the parks projects were an “easy win” since street trees are a greater benefit to communities. Planting those is “a whole other ball game” that would require input and additional resources from the city, she said.

Whether the neighborhood will get any is an open question.

“Clearly we know that historically District 2 has not been invested in or made a priority as much as it should,” Malik said. “We’re not pointing fingers or blaming anyone but given the realities that we’re faced with we want to partner with the city to help them do their job better.”

There could be more at stake for treeless communities than a little heat exhaustion. Evidence has been mounting for years about the underlying benefits a hearty canopy affords to individual health.

Ray Tretheway, executive director of the Sacramento Tree Foundation, first heard this idea at a conference when a speaker declared: the future of urban forestry is public health.

The lecture planted a seed and a few years ago the Tree Foundation helped fund a study of Sacramento County. Unlike previous research, which examined green space, including parks, there’s focused solely on tree canopy and whether it had any effect on neighborhood health outcomes.

They found that more tree cover was associated with better overall health and it influenced to a lesser degree, blood pressure, diabetes and asthma, according to the 2016 study published in the journal Health & Place.

“It was an eye-opener,” Tretheway said. “We deeply rethought and retooled our programs to follow this new information.”

The first lesson learned was to prioritize the most at-risk neighborhoods, he said. They’re often struggling with food deserts, a lack of jobs, poor-performing schools and insufficient transportation.

“The disparities are very clear here in Sacramento as well as across the country,” Tretheway said.

“If you live in a low-income or under-resourced neighborhood, you’re pretty much assured not to have any amount of tree canopy to make a significant difference to the quality of life or health of your neighborhood.”

Tretheway estimates that at least 200,000 street trees need to be planted in the next ten years to reach the equivalent number of trees in the more desirable areas. The pitfalls of such an endeavor are plenty.

The Tree Foundation knows this first hand. Through a partnership with SMUD, the nonprofit gives away thousands of trees annually free of charge. But saplings need to be closely looked after — especially during the first three to five years in the ground.

In its earliest days during the 1980s, volunteers fanned out along a commercial section of Franklin Boulevard to put trees in the ground, he said. There were no planting strips so they cut out holes in the concrete.

Without adequate manpower, the follow-up lagged. Trees died. Tretheway learned a lesson: “It’s a very vulnerable and high-risk place to plant trees along commercial streets.”

More evidence came later. A UC Berkeley graduate student studied its shade tree program with SMUD and published the results in 2014. The researchers tracked more than 400 distributed trees over five years to see how many would survive.

The young trees that performed best were in neighborhoods with stable homeownership. More than 100 trees died; 66 were never planted. Tretheway learned another lesson: “We put a lot of trees out there but they’re not always surviving.”

For some urban planners and arborists, the task of planting street trees, particularly in neighborhoods that have been ignored, is all the more critical as global climate change transforms the environment.

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.

“Trees are going to play a huge role in capturing carbon and reducing the urban heat island effect,” said Stacy Springer, chief executive of Breathe California for the Sacramento region. “It serves as a relatively inexpensive solution — one of many — to some of the issues that we’re facing in our communities.”

The number of extreme heat days in Sacramento could triple in the next three decades, increasing the potential number of deaths from heat-related illnesses, according to a report from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Trees can mitigate the effects of hot temperatures but only if they’re evenly planted.

“Even if you drive down the street you can see that most of the time if it’s a poor neighborhood it’s not going to have many trees,” said Blain, the executive director of California ReLeaf.

“If you look across the country, this is very much the case. At this point, California as a state is very conscious there has been social inequity.”

Blain said the state offers grants that target low-income communities through its cap and trade program, which California ReLeaf has received.

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