New tree equity score drives home the important role of trees in creating social equity

Source(s): American Forests
Drop of Light/Shutterstock
Drop of Light/Shutterstock

WASHINGTON, DC: American Forests today unveiled its Tree Equity Score, which will help cities in the United States address a problem that exacerbates social inequities and climate change impacts nationwide—often far fewer trees in socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods.  

Tree Equity Score provides an indicator of whether a neighborhood has Tree Equity, defined as the right number of trees so all people experience the health, economic and other benefits that trees provide. Calculated neighborhood scores are based on such factors as existing tree cover, population density, income, employment, race, ethnicity, age and urban heat island effect (as measured by surface temperatures).  

City government employees, community activists, urban foresters and others will be encouraged to use the scores to make the case for planting, protecting and maintaining trees in the neighborhoods that need them the most, as well as securing the funding needed to do so. 

 “Trees are more than just scenery for our cities,” said American Forests President and CEO Jad Daley. “They are critical infrastructure to protect people in our rapidly warming climate and are as essential for public safety as are street lights. It is our moral imperative to create Tree Equity in cities so everyone has these benefits. Tree Equity Score is a catalyst because it provides a data-driven and consistent way to see where action is most needed, and to measure progress toward Tree Equity in those neighborhoods.”  

Tree Equity Score will eventually cover 486 U.S. Census-defined urbanized areas in the country, home to 70% of the U.S. population. This includes cities and towns that have at least 50,000 people. 

The initial Tree Equity Scores released today cover multiple cities and towns in Maricopa County, AZ (home to Phoenix), the San Francisco Bay area of California and Rhode Island. These initial scores, found at, consistently show a need to plant, protect and take care of more trees in socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods. The need is mainly due to a legacy of disinvestment in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods, such as federal redlining.  

The Rhode Island Tree Equity Score was launched with a new companion tool, the Tree Equity Score Analyzer, which will enable community leaders and other stakeholders across the state to parse their community’s score layer-by-layer and to see how it relates to specific parcels of land. This will be useful in planning tree planting projects, scoping out different scenarios for the projects and identifying tree planting opportunities.

“Addressing Tree Equity gaps is an opportunity to improve people’s health and wellbeing, reduce energy costs and fight climate change,” said Sacha Spector, program director for the environment at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. “The new Tree Equity Score Analyzer tool puts communities in the driver’s seat by helping them target the gaps and create ground-up plans that put the right trees in the places that make sense for them.” 

American Forests received an award from the Microsoft Community Environmental Sustainability initiative in 2019 to assist in the creation of the Tree Equity Score project for Maricopa County. 

“The new Tree Equity Score will help communities identify and take action in neighborhoods that need trees the most, so everyone can benefit from the natural ability of trees to cool neighborhoods and purify our air,” says Holly Spangler Beale, program manager, datacenter community environmental sustainability at Microsoft. 

American Forests has also partnered with the U.S. Forest Service Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science to develop a new urban forestry handbook, the Climate & Health Action Guide, which will help government officials and others optimize their urban forestry programs so they can improve their scores. The document includes guidance on choosing trees to plant that can withstand the changing climate, which is essential to assure lasting impact.  

Addressing climate change-induced health problems, such as cardiovascular and lower respiratory tract illnesses, is a major reason American Forests was originally driven to work with its partners to create Tree Equity Score. By trapping air pollutants, trees help keep the air clean, which reduces the risk of such illnesses.  

Trees also help minimize the chance of heat-related illnesses and death. They help protect people from heat (which is more intense now, due to climate change) by lowering temperatures and counteracting the urban heat island effect. This is significant, given that a 10-fold increase in heat-related deaths is expected in the eastern U.S. by 2050. Trees can help reduce surrounding air temperatures by as much as 9° F. And because cool air settles near the ground, air temperatures directly under trees can be 20 to 45°F cooler than air temperatures in nearby unshaded areas.  

Tree Equity also can help slow climate change itself. Urban forests across America already capture more than 120 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually, and reduce residential energy use for heating and cooling by an average of 7.2% nationally.  

A new American Forests study, conducted with Dr. David Nowak of the U.S. Forest Service, suggests planting 25 million urban trees annually in the U.S. will enhance the climate mitigation benefits of urban trees by adding an additional 353 million tons of carbon storage. Per year, this will reduce carbon emissions from energy production by 10.3 million tons, saving $7.4 billion in building energy costs. To ensure such benefits are experienced by those who need them the most, Tree Equity Score could be used to help make the case for planting trees in neighborhoods where people struggle to pay their energy bills or experience higher rates of unemployment. 

ABOUT AMERICAN FORESTS: American Forests is the first national non-profit conservation organization created in the U.S. Since its founding in 1875, the organization has been the pathfinders for the forest conservation movement. Its mission is to create healthy and resilient forests, from cities to wilderness, that deliver essential benefits for climate, people, water and wildlife. The organization advances its mission through forestry, innovation, place-based partnerships to plant and restore forests, and movement building.

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