University High School
Instructor: Scott Boehnen
The Decline of Urban Tree Canopy in Cleveland
The Decline of Urban Tree Canopy in Cleveland
Cuyahoga County's urban tree canopy — the layer of leaves, branches, and stems of trees that cover the ground when viewed from above — has been declining since the 1950s, and the underlying cause is both political and historical. The decrease in the county's green infrastructure is due to redlining policies from the 1930s and 1940s, in which communities of color were denied access to home ownership, value, and personal credit scores (Hoffman et al.). The Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC) "refinanced mortgages at low interest rates to prevent foreclosures, and in the process created color-coded residential maps" (Hoffman et al.). Green communities were "Best;" blue communities were "Still Desirable;" yellow communities were "Definitely Declining;" red communities were "Hazardous" (Appendix A). According to the 1940 Census Tract, 61% - 96% of African Americans were consolidated in D-18 and D-21, two "Hazardous" communities in East Cleveland. These maps demonstrate the segregated communities in East Cleveland, in which HOLC divided communities by racial diversity, poverty, and level of education; "those areas deemed 'hazardous' remain dominantly low-to-moderate income and communities of color, while those deemed 'desirable' remain predominantly white with above-average incomes" (Hoffman et al.). These color-coded communities also determined the amount of federal backing a loan would receive — red communities received no backing, yellow communities received 15% federal backing, and blue and green communities received 80% federal backing (Reece et al.). The lack of federal investments for public amenities such as green infrastructure in red communities contributed to the decline in Cleveland's urban tree canopy.
As an example, a similar situation of redlining had developed in Richmond, Virginia. According to Brad Plumer and Nadja Popovich, who are reporters for The New York Times, "That inequity [of redlining] likely influenced urban heat patterns, too. Neighborhoods with white homeowners had more clout to lobby city governments for tree-lined sidewalks and parks. In Black neighborhoods, homeownership declined, and landlords rarely invested in green space" (Plumer and Popovich). White communities received federal backing and thus more influence on Richmond's government to build public amenities, whereas black communities had no federal backing and no influence, which resulted in the decline in green infrastructure and population in these communities. The crisis in Richmond mirrors Cleveland's communities of color, in which the green-blue urban grids have been severely affected. In the 2019 Urban Tree Canopy Assessment Update, 31 counties had less tree canopy than the mean (37.6%), and North Randall, Brook Park, Warrensville Heights, Linndale, and most importantly Cleveland — communities labeled "Hazardous" and "Definitely Declining" by HOLC — had the least existing tree canopy as a percent of land area — less than 20% ("Urban Tree Canopy: Community Survey", Appendix B).
Without the urban tree canopy, Cleveland's total air pollution and temperatures, and consequently blood pressure rate, heart rates, risk of type II diabetes and stroke, and all-cause mortality rates will rise ("Urban Tree Canopy Assessment", Gill et al.). To combat these detrimental effects, Cleveland businesses, organizations, and branches of government have established the Cleveland Tree Plan, which aims to revitalize the urban tree canopy by planting and giving away trees. Through the Tree Plan, Cleveland will reclaim its nickname: "The Forest City."
The impact of disappearing tree canopy has led to deadly temperatures and increased mortality. A literature review composed by Wendy Kellogg, Brian Mikelbank, Robert Laverne, and Kathryn Hexter states, "Forestry and water resource managers suggest that trees provide a wide range of benefits to communities, which accrue in environmental improvements (e.g., air quality, urban heat island effect reduction, water quality improvements), social conditions (e.g., noise abatement, enhanced social interaction), and economic value (e.g., energy conservation) in urban life" (Kellogg et al.). The effects of the absence of these benefits can be represented in other communities suffering from the deficiency in green infrastructure. For example, in the Gilpin neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, 40-year-old mom Sparkle Veronica Taylor must walk her two boys in the 95-degree weather, an average of 15 degrees more than white-dominated neighborhoods, to a playground more than thirty minutes across Richmond because their local park lacks shade. Taylor states, "'The heat gets really intense, I'm just zapped of energy by the end of the day. But once we get to that park, I'm struck by how green the space is. I feel calmer, better able to breathe. Walking through different neighborhoods, there's a stark difference between places that have lots of greenery and places that don't'" (Taylor quoted in Plumer and Popovich). Moreover, a study of the correlation between heat waves and mortality risk found that a 1°F increase in average temperature during a heat wave increased the risk of mortality by 4.39% (Anderson and Bell). Gilpin's residents who don't have cars have to walk across a highway just to buy groceries or attend a medical examination, subjecting them to cardiac arrest or respiratory diseases caused by the air quality from the highway. Likewise, in Lynnwood, a neighborhood in northern Seattle, Washington, the effects of the increasing extreme heat exposure have increased the demand for air conditioning units. Bruce Davis, the senior president of an air conditioning company, stated "the business [was] getting six to 10 phone calls an hour about air conditioning" during the deadly heat wave, with temperatures reaching 108 degrees in Seattle, in the Pacific Northwest in June 2021 (Golden). According to the Snohomish County Report, the Southwest County Urban Growth Area, in which Lynnwood is located, had a tree canopy coverage percentage of 24.23% as of 2016. Although the Snohomish County Planning and Development Services has reported that more than 16,000 trees have been planted between 2016 and 2020 (McGowan), those trees have not contributed to lowering the temperatures sufficiently during the heat wave; if the trees were, residents would not need to order any air conditioning units. Through these units, Lynnwood has succumbed to an increase in electricity demand and the risk of power failure. The effects of the lack of urban tree canopy in Richmond and Lynnwood exhibit that Cleveland will soon endure these effects unless something can be done to improve the lives of Cleveland's residents.
Many solutions have already been implemented to counteract the decrease in green infrastructure, but the most impactful one is the Cleveland Tree Plan, released in 2015. The Cleveland Tree Plan aims to "recognize trees as critical infrastructure; reverse the trend of canopy loss; and assume full stewardship of the tree infrastructure in the City of Cleveland" ("Cleveland Tree Plan"). Since 2000, Cleveland has lost 449 acres, or 5% of the tree canopy cover, and has predicted that the urban tree canopy cover will decrease to 14.8% by 2040 ("Urban Tree Canopy Assessment"). The decrease in green infrastructure has also led to a 6.3% reduction (over 3.1 million dollars) in cumulative tree benefits. Motivated by this, members of the Cleveland Tree Coalition, who run the Cleveland Tree Plan, have planted and given out more than 20,000 trees in response to the canopy loss since 2015 — their short-term goal was to plant 50,000 trees by 2020. Although they have fallen short of this goal, they still plan on raising the urban tree canopy to 30% by 2040. To do this, they projected that 28,500 trees would have to be planted annually, costing 8.62 million dollars every year ("Cleveland Tree Plan"). If the Cleveland Tree Coalition can reach this goal, then Cleveland will become suitable for more residents, businesses, and wildlife.
The Cleveland Tree Plan is an effective solution to a longstanding problem in green infrastructure, but what can we as Clevelanders do? In order to reach the Cleveland Tree Coalition's goal, it "will require everyone's effort, from Cleveland Tree Coalition (CTC) members to residents to businesses. Planting, caring and preserving trees on private and public property are activities everyone can participate in to help reverse the trend in canopy loss" ("Cleveland Tree Plan"). The Cleveland Tree Coalition offers many practical solutions to expand the urban tree canopy in one's own property and community, from planting trees and forming tree committees and institutions to celebrating Arbor Day and stewarding trees throughout one's neighborhood ("Cleveland Tree Coalition"). Input from the community has benefitted other cities. In Pittsburgh and New York City, their nonprofit organizations "Tree Pittsburgh" and "MillionTreesNYC," respectively, promote the same solutions as in the Cleveland Tree Plan: planting and stewarding trees, supporting associated institutions, and becoming educated about the benefits of trees, and in New York City, supporters have planted more than 1 million trees — a 20% increase in New York City's urban tree canopy (Tree Pittsburgh, MillionTreesNYC). Supporting the Cleveland Tree Plan will benefit our communities, especially those that have been redlined.
Many believe that the Cleveland Tree Plan is just an ecological and environmental initiative, but really it is addressing the importance of social justice and the impact of racism in Cleveland. If we help increase Cleveland's green-blue urban grid, the newly planted trees will not only benefit us, but also all future generations as well. If we truly care about our children's futures, we must change the environment for the better. Planting and stewarding trees will be the catalyst for lowering Earth's temperatures, allowing much better lives for our children. Furthermore, we cannot doom our population to become extinct by our own hands; our future will be determined by the actions we choose. If we support Cleveland's green infrastructure, our future — and Earth itself — will improve for the better.