Fewer trees, more asthma. How Sacramento can improve its canopy and public health
BY THE SACRAMENTO BEE EDITORIAL BOARD
OCTOBER 15, 2019 05:01 AM, UPDATED OCTOBER 15, 2019 11:31 AM
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.
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.