How America’s treeless streets are fueling inequality

Every weekday at 6am, 68-year-old Ana Adelea-Lopez walks through her Houston neighborhood to the bus stop.

On the way, she passes a series of apartment complexes, telephone poles and metal fences on a long stretch of sidewalk. For the entirety of her walk, there’s not a single tree in sight.

“You can’t even be on the street because of the heat,” said Adelea-Lopez who takes the bus to her seamstress job. “There aren’t a lot of trees. There are a lot of apartments. A lot of cement.”

Houston is a city of extreme heat: the hottest daily temperature last August peaked at 100F (38C). But like many other US metropolitan areas, how much heat you endure depends largely on where you live. That’s because Houston is a tale of two cities: one is sprawling with greenery, public parks and hundred-year-old oak trees, all of which can help mitigate the heat. The other is a bevy of strip malls stacked on top of concrete – which produces and absorbs more heat throughout the day.

Adelea-Lopez lives in the latter: her neighborhood Sharpstown is sandwiched between two highways and features apartment complexes that offer little green space. And this absence of tree-lined streets is indicative of socioeconomic and health disparities that exist throughout Houston.

Sharpstown isn’t the only tree-poor, overheating neighborhood in Houston. In the city as a whole, and in cities across the US, from Chicago to Jacksonville, there are fewer trees in poorer neighborhoods. Trees, and the shade they provide, are actually markers of race and class.

The further you are from Houston’s downtown, the cooler it is. And this unequal distribution of trees throughout Houston – and in other US cities – stems from a long history of racist housing practices.

In the 1930s, banks classified the neighborhoods where Black people lived as undesirable – outlining them in red on maps – and categorically made it harder for families living there to receive loans.

The impact of “redlining” is still felt today in policy, access to healthcare, transportation, education, housing – and the allocation of trees and parks.

A 2020 studeer found that nationally, previously redlined neighborhoods are approximately 5F warmer today than non-redlined areas. On average, previously redlined areas also have about half the tree canopy than non-redlined areas.

The areas of shade vary so much in Houston because the city does not have zoning laws – meaning municipal agencies cannot regulate the use of privately owned land. By comparison, major metropolitan areas like New York City have strict ordinances in certain areas that require one street tree for every 25ft. And throughout the rest of Texas, other cities like Austin regulate trees both on public and private property.

“In Austin, you can’t remove a tree in your front yard or back yard without the city’s approval,” says Jeremy Burkes, a supervisor at Houston Urban Forestry (HUF), a division of the city’s parks and recreation department. In Houston, “if a developer wants to come in and clearcut a lot, we have no authority or jurisdiction over that land, so we can’t stop it,” adds Burkes.

In Houston, tree planting and maintenance is outsourced to non-profit organizations like Trees for Houston and private landscapers. In the pursuit of curb appeal, residents in affluent neighborhoods – like the historic River Oaks, home to Texas senator Ted Cruz – may contract private landscapers to plant and maintain trees on their property and in their neighborhoods. When the burden of tree planting and landscaping is placed upon individuals, poorer residents suffer.

In Houston’s low-income areas, “there isn’t enough space to plant trees. There’s a lot more pavement than there is available planning space,” Burkes said.

Much of the city was built on coastal prairie, swamps and marshes. As the city grew, an urban forest grew along with it, but it hasn’t grown equitably. According to the data collected by the Texas A&M Forest Service, in Houston’s “medium to high” developed areas, there are an estimated 3.7 trees per person. In similar areas in Austin there are 4 trees per person and in San Antonio there are 7.5.

“There is disparity here. [Houston has] low tree canopy cover and high heat. It speaks to the very unique planning and zoning approach here,” said Joey Williams, who runs operations at Climate Adaptation Planning Analytics (Capa) Strategies, the organization that conducted an assessment of heat in August last year.

Barry Ward, chief executive of Trees for Houston, advocates for an urban planning model where the ratio of greenery in a neighborhood is proportional to the population. Single-family homes don’t need to overcome many obstacles to plant a tree in the front yard. But in large, populous cities like Houston, where multi-unit housing is common, apartment complex developers rarely accommodate for tree space, especially in poorer neighborhoods. And because Houston doesn’t have zoning laws, developers are not legally bound to do so.

“The people who design and maintain streets, bus stops and schools all love trees but they don’t want them anywhere around their structure. They’re worried about roots and blowing leaves,” Ward said. “Because they have no responsibility for the long-term issues – from lack of shade to cooling our city or [maintaining] clean air – they don’t see the bill that our grandkids will have to pay or that we’re paying right now.”

Because her workday starts so early, Adelea-Lopez commutes back home in the middle of the afternoon, with the sun still overhead. After getting off the bus, she begins her walk back home to her apartment – looking on at the cars passing by, in a city full of highways.

“South-west [Houston] is one of the poorest parts. That’s why people don’t care,” Adelea-Lopez said. “Just because we’re a Hispanic community and lower-income, we still deserve trees.”

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