Trees: More than pretty plants, they mark efforts in civil rights, public health, more

By David Pendered

Tree canopies represent more than pretty plants. Urban forests are at the center of a national conversation over civil and human rights, the wealth divide and public health – and President Trump’s foreign relations. This is the broader conversation as Atlanta considers a rewrite of its tree ordinance.

tree, candler park

Reflections of a series of mature trees along a sidewalk in Candler Park remind that their presence can be taken for granted. Credit: Kelly Jordan

The civil and human rights aspect of the discussion was recharged in a book published in January. Seeing Trees, by Harvard University’s Sonja Dümpelmann, recounts the 1960s story of an elderly black woman in a Brooklyn ghetto.

Hattie Carthan’schampionship of trees helped mobilize neighbors to oppose deteriorating conditions in their community and ended up opening a new front in the movement. One chapter, previously published, observes:

  • “African American citizens of Bedford-Stuyvesant turned trees into a means of empowerment and emancipation within the civil rights movement [and] illustrate grassroots initiatives for the planting, care, and protection of trees that stood squarely within the civil rights, environmental, and women’s movements of the time.”

On June 3, the president and CEO of American Forests, Jad Daley, added his voice with views on the wealth divide, published in a column titled, Let’s Commit to Tree Equity in American Cities. Daley put the weight of the nation’s first nonprofit conservation organization, founded in 1875, behind these observations:

  • “Trees are not just scenery for our cities, they are critical infrastructure that every neighborhood and person deserves — a basic right that we must secure.”

To make his case, Daley cited a research article funded by an affiliate of the University of California at Santa Barbara – Trees Grow on Money: Urban Tree Canopy Cover and Environmental Justice. The article examined the tree cover in seven cities, at the Census block level, and determined that the tree canopy was denser in wealthier neighborhoods. Race and ethnicity wasn’t a factor in most cities. The report concluded:

  • “Money may not grow on trees, but this study suggests that in a way, trees grow on money. Our findings show that high-income neighborhoods in our selected cities are more likely than low-income neighborhoods to have high tree canopy cover.”
tree, candler park drive, mary lin elementary

Atlanta’s effort to rewrite its tree protection ordinance is part of a broader national conversation on the role of trees. Credit: Kelly Jordan

In contrast, trees are more plentiful in some white neighborhoods of Durham, N.C than in low income or African American neighborhoods. Atlanta shares a similar history with the practice that created the situation, according to a student researcher’s report released by Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

Redlining resulted in cities not planting trees in poorer and minority neighborhoods, according to the report. Local governments devised tree-planting programs that favored neighborhoods outside districts that were marked with a red line by the Home Owners’ Loan Corp., a government program created as a foreclosure-prevention effort in the New Deal. The report observes:

  • “If we want to end the cycle of redlining’s discriminatory impacts, trees are a good place to start.”

The relationship between trees and human health is cited in a number of reports, including onewith that very name published by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

A study on the health impacts of the Atlanta BeltLine expressed similar thoughts. Catherine Ross, then with Georgia Tech’s  Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development, released a reportin June 2007 that cited a number of health benefits related to the sight of trees and walking beneath trees.

Former Gov. Sonny Perdue is helping to establish the tone for this broader conversation through the work of the U.S. Forest Service, part of the Department of Agriculture that Perdue oversees as secretary.

The Forest Service is the lead partner of Vibrant Cities Lab, a program that says it aims to, “help city managers, policymakers and advocates build thriving urban forest programs.” The lab does this with efforts that include the creation of case studies that:

  • “[M]ove beyond the allure of a pretty landscape installation and instead focus on successful programs, laws, funding and management structures that can help institutionalize urban forestry for the long term.”

College Park is one of the case studies.

College Park gained federal and state funding in 2009 for a $5 million stormwater management project. Trees were planted in pods that captured stormwater and used a biofiltration process to clean the water before the water was sent on to irrigate properties in the city, according to the case study.

Earlier this month, a dead tree became a metaphor for the state of relations between Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron.

The French newspaper, Le Monde, reportedJune 5 that the friendship tree the two presidents planted in April on the White House lawn has died. Macron’s gift to the United States was symbolic – the tree was harvested from Belleau Wood, site of heavy fighting for U.S. troops in World War I. The tree was removed for a routine quarantine and died before it was replanted, according to a reportby usatoday.com.

Note to readers: Atlanta’s Department of City Planning is accepting public comment on the proposed tree ordinance until July 17. Another round of public meetings is planned in late July, but dates, times and locations have yet to be determined. For more information review the current document, Protecting Our Natural Identity: Rewriting the Tree Protection Ordinance.

 

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

1 reply
  1. Avatar
    Genevieve says:

    Thank you so very much, David, for this well-written piece.
    I can only hope the owners of Ashton Woods Development company will read it and maybe change their predatory and irresponsible development methods, which are in direct contrast to the sentiments and viewpoints you shared here.Report

    Reply

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