The Popular Bryant Park in New York City. Source: Jean-Christophe Benoist, Wikimedia Commons
If you are someone who is lucky enough to have lots of trees in your neighborhood or in your city, have you ever considered what those trees mean to you? Do you see trees as vessels for reducing air pollution? As the solution to mitigating intense summer heat? Opportunities to improve public health? The goal of educating the public on the natural (and free) benefits of urban trees is to open people’s eyes to see trees as much more than urban beautification. As more and more Americans move into urban and suburban areas, improving our urban tree canopy and understanding the ways in which trees enhance our quality of life and protect us from climate change will only become more important.
The urban forest refers to trees and vegetation that grow in urban areas. According to the U.S. Forest Service, urban forests include “urban parks, street trees, landscaped boulevards, gardens, greenways, river corridors, wetlands, nature preserves, shelterbelts of trees, and working trees at former industrial sites.” In fact, the U.S. Forest Service estimatesthat 130 million acres of America’s forests are located in cities and towns. When people talk about the urban tree canopy (UTC), they are referring more specifically to the layer of coverage provided by trees and other vegetation when viewed from above. Measuring the amount of area covered by tree canopy is especially important because it indicates how many urban trees there are in an area and how much shade those trees are providing.
An Aerial View of Waikiki Source: Michelle Maria
Research has consistently supported the idea that trees can improve people’s physical and mental health. Urban trees reduce depression, anxiety, and even improve the ability to focus in people with ADHD. Neighborhood trees also encourage people to spend more time outdoors and thus lead more active lives. Being near nature and even simply looking at trees has been known to lower blood pressure, stress, and make people feel happier and more generous. They also shade our cities and thus reduce the urban heat island effect and protect people from heat-related illness. Furthermore, trees are one of humanity’s best tools to reduce air pollution. A 2014 study in the journal Environmental Pollution used computer simulations and local environmental data to find just how much pollution trees have removed from the air. They found that trees in the United States “removed 17.4 million tonnes (t) of air pollution in 2010, with human health effects valued at 6.8 billion U.S. dollars. Health impacts included the avoidance of more than 850 incidences of human mortality and 670,000 incidences of acute respiratory symptoms.” The 1999 USDA Forest Service RPA Assessment determined that urban areas had on average, 27-33% UTC coverage. In Honolulu, a study done by Smart Trees Pacific in 2015 found that over the previous four years, the UTC had declined about 5% and covered about 20% of the land. In the past, an UTC of about 40% or higher had been recommended universally. However newer research suggests that while setting UTC goals is important, specific areas and environments require more nuanced approaches to determining the optimal percentage of canopy coverage. Such approaches require measuring the current UTC and where trees are located, estimating the potential percentage of UTC and strategizing where trees might be most optimal to support “identified community priorities” such as improving water quality, providing shade, fostering diverse wildlife, etc., determining what species of trees are optimal, and finally with establishing UTC goals in local legislation or ordinances. Considering the importance of urban trees to community and environmental health, it is important that urban forestry goals are strategic and planned carefully. The U.S. Forest Service recommends that studies of the current UTC in conjunction with other factors such as “impervious surfaces, socioeconomic information, traffic density, and heat island maps” can make the most out of an UTC study. Additionally, involving the citizenry in urban planning with respect to trees can play an important part in strengthening community relationships. UTC analysis, therefore, has the potential to serve as a vital tool for policymakers in helping a city reach its sustainability, social, and economic goals.
Protestors Marching in the 2019 San Francisco Youth Climate Strike. Source: Marti Johnson, Wikimedia Commons
Today’s movement to mitigate the effects of climate change and preserve natural spaces against the advance of urban sprawl highlights the intersectional nature of the environmental challenges we face. Pollution, deforestation, and a lack of green spaces in neighborhoods does not happen in a vacuum. Around the world, the effects of climate change have a disproportionately devastating effect on the global south and low income, communities of color. In reality, the countries and people who bear the brunt of the negative effects of climate change are usually those who are not contributing to the majority of humanity’s carbon footprint.
Issues surrounding environmental justice are not limited to developing nations, they are also relevant within the wealthiest country on Earth. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, environmental justice is the “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies. . . no group of people should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, governmental and commercial operations or policies.” Environmental justice, then, is essentially the intersection between environmentalism and social justice.
Awareness for environmental justice first began as a result of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. As a result, Native American, African American, Latino, and Pacific Islander groups have long championed the call for environmental justice. People felt empowered to complain about and expose the public health consequences of living in neglected neighborhoods. The movement became unified in the 1980s with the highly publicized protest against Warren County’s plan to build a hazardous waste landfill in the rural, predominantly African American community of Afton in North Carolina. The county wanted to designate a landfill for 50,000 tons of PCB-contaminated soil that was removed from the sites of illegal dumping along highways. In 1982, the NAACP filed a lawsuit against the Federal EPA and the State of North Carolina and staged a massive sit-in protest, in which hundreds of citizens and even some community leaders were arrested. In the end, they lost the fight against the State. Even though it was unsuccessful, this struggle is largely regarded, as the impetus for the national movement for environmental justice.
The Afton protests sparked proper research into the environmental disparities in America. Representative Walter Fauntroy of the District of Columbia launched an investigation into the relationship between race and hazardous waste landfills in the South where there were high populations of people of color. The report done by the General Accounting Office found that of the four hazardous waste landfills in the region of study, Black people made up the majority of the population living near three of the landfill sites. In all four communities, 26% of the population were living in poverty and Black people represented 84% or more of those below the poverty level.
In 1987, the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice published Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, a national report on the racial and socio-economic characteristics of communities that host hazardous waste sites. The report found indisputable patterns that communities with greater minority percentages of the population are more likely to be sites of commercial hazardous waste facilities. They concluded that “the possibility that these patterns resulted by chance is virtually impossible, strongly suggesting that some underlying factor or factors, which are related to race, played a role.”
The push for environmental justice in America has also encompassed the right for all people regardless of class and race, to have equal access to natural spaces such as trees, gardens, and recreational parks in their neighborhoods. City governments learned that the presence of urban trees and parks were consequential in improving public health by reducing air pollution, encouraging more exercise and outdoor activity, and mitigating the summer heat. In 1990, the Farm Bill created the National Urban and Community Forestry Advisory Council (NUCFAC), to advise the Secretary of Agriculture on urban forestry and to provide a platform for the discussion about the health and preservation of America's urban forests. Currently, about 84% of the U.S. population lives in urban areas. Experts predict that 89% of the U.S. population will live in urban areas by 2050. Therefore efforts to improve and preserve the urban tree canopy will only become more important into the future.
How does the concept of environmental justice apply to Hawaiʻi? As an island state, we face an interesting and unique set of challenges. We are defined geographically and environmentally by a fragile, endemic ecosystem, limited space, and isolation. Therefore, the environment and how it affects people is an important political issue that cannot be avoided. The Senate Concurrent Resolution (SCR) 140 HD 1 was the first legal recognition in Hawaiʻi that there needed to be a study on the effects of the environment on vulnerable populations. The resolution requested that the state Environmental Council, the Office of Environmental Quality Control (OEQC) and the University of Hawaiʻi Environmental Center (UHEC) provide a report which would be used as guidance on including principles of environmental justice in all phases of environmental review.
The report, published in 2008, is important because it outlines the target population for environmental justice efforts as “minority and low-income populations, with a special emphasis on the Native Hawaiian population.” It also establishes a definition for environmental justice in Hawaiʻi: “Environmental justice is the right of every person in Hawaiʻi to live in a clean and healthy environment, to be treated fairly, and to have meaningful involvement in decisions that affect their environment and health; with an emphasis on the responsibility of every person in Hawaiʻi to uphold traditional and customary Native Hawaiian practices that preserve, protect, and restore the ʻaina for present and future generations. Environmental justice in Hawaiʻi recognizes that no one segment of the population or geographic area should be disproportionately burdened with environmental and/or health impacts resulting from development, construction, operations and/or use of natural resources.”
The conversation around environmental justice in Hawaiʻi is likely to become more and more common as the population grows over the next three decades. Census data from 2010 reveals that 91.9% of the state’s population reside in “densely developed residential, commercial, and other non‐residential areas,” figures much higher than the national average due to limited land space. Therefore it is imperative that Hawaiʻi’s leaders are aware of the historical problems associated with the distribution of negative environmental consequences as they manage future urban growth. Furthermore, educating Hawaiʻi’s people on issues relating to environmental justice will empower communities, hold representatives accountable, and help Hawaiʻi to be a more equitable and just place for all.
A View of a Harlem Neighborhood. Source: Mozart Diensthuber, Wikimedia Commons
As we have discussed in my previous “What is Environmental Justice?” article, public awareness of environmental justice issues is extremely important in order to ensure that people of all walks of life, of all races, and of all means, have access to clean and healthy communities. Environmental justice efforts that are well-meaning and intend to address inequality, such as cleaning up neighborhoods, greening inner cities, and improving access to nature may mean well, but without careful thought and planning, can bring the unintended consequence of gentrifying affordable neighborhoods and displacing the very people whom the environmental improvements were intended to benefit in the first place.
In recent years, the word “sustainability” has become a marketable catch-phrase and talking point for many, not just progressives and environmentalists. It is even a term that carries a-political connotations, meaning that the idea of sustainability is generally agreeable to people across the political spectrum. According to the U.S. EPA, sustainability relies on the principle that “Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. To pursue sustainability is to create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations.” Viewing this definition through the lens of environmental justice then, shows that just as environmental challenges do not occur in a vacuum, so do proposed solutions. In regards to urban planning, developers and politicians who truly understand the meaning of sustainability should realize that decisions must also benefit “present and future generations” of all people, not just those who are in positions of privilege in society.
In her “Wiped Out by the “Greenwave”: Environmental Gentrification and the Paradoxical Politics of Urban Sustainability,” Professor Melissa Checker coins the term “environmental gentrification” to describe how high-end developers have capitalized upon the trend of green living in a way that “builds on the material and discursive successes of the environmental justice movement and appropriates them to serve high‐end development. While it appears as politically‐neutral, consensus‐based planning that is both ecologically and socially sensitive, in practice, environmental gentrification subordinates equity to profit‐minded development.” In her paper, she argues that threats of environmental gentrification force people from communities who would otherwise support environmental improvements, to “face a pernicious paradox—must they reject environmental amenities in their neighborhoods in order resist the gentrification that tends to follow such amenities.”
Gentrification has historically been difficult to measure because there is a lack of consensus among scholars as to how to accurately identify and measure its complex political, economic, and social causes. The most widely accepted definition of gentrification is the changing character of a neighborhood due to the displacement of lower income households and businesses with higher income households and businesses. However, critics argue that existing scholarship does not properly take into account the “racial dimensions” of the phenomenon. They point to the reality that many pre-gentrified neighborhoods are comprised of predominantly low-income Black and/or non-white Latinos and that gentrification is commonly associated with the arrival of White, wealthier residents who displace them. Gentrification usually benefits middle class families, but can also be particularly painful for people of color who come from low educational backgrounds as it tends to push out and concentrate poverty. When gentrification happens, a community usually undergoes much needed improvements and added amenities that unintentionally (or intentionally) attract wealthier people. In the process, long-term residents get priced out when such renovations raise property values on the free market.
Checker takes a more qualitative approach through interviews and in-person observation in her analysis of environmental improvement projects created under the PlaNYC initiative in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City from 2007 to 2011. She found the so-called “pernicious paradox” materialized in the relationship between the grassroots West Harlem Environmental Action Coalition (WE ACT) and NYC government officials. WE ACT, composed of Harlem residents and activists, began advocating for community-based involvement in urban projects, addressing the poor air quality, and for more environmental amenities in the late 1980s after decades of city policies and urban zoning laws consequently pushed the residential and industrial areas closer and closer together. WE ACT was initially involved in early PlaNYC sustainability planning, however, the grassroots organization soon discovered that the city’s “long-term vision for the plan would focus narrowly on infrastructure needs and metrics that would enable [it] to effectively track and evaluate its progress.”
Urban sustainability projects that did not include community guidance resulted in WE ACT having to intervene on several occasions to uphold community interests. In one instance, WE ACT had to raise an alarm when an initiative intended to enforce energy efficiency in large buildings “failed to include any provisions to prevent landlords from passing the cost of boiler upgrades onto their tenants” and instead, took action to find a “more locally relevant” solution to reducing emissions. Checker also found that NYC’s first LEED-certified townhouse, which was built in Harlem, included amenities that drove up the price 35% higher than surrounding townhomes. This case study of Harlem perfectly illustrates the paradox caused by environmental gentrification. A community-based environmental organization that formed with the intent of advocating for environmental improvement, eventually transforms into an organization that essentially has to temper and check the pace of its city’s “greening” in order to make sure its long-time residents are not harmed too much by the changes.
A Part of the Newtown Nature Creek Walk in the Neighborhood of Greenpoint in Brooklyn, New York. Source: Varick Shute
One takeaway from Checker’s analysis is that on a very basic level, cities must truly integrate and prioritize community involvement at all stages of planning to prevent urban greening projects from becoming a “post-political project that sidelines questions of real inclusion and justice.” If gentrification is so hard to identify and measure in the first place, brainstorming potential solutions to displacement and rapid redevelopment is also difficult as well. Curran and Hamilton (2012) provide a potential solution through their “just green enough” approach, defined as a way to achieve goals of environmental justice without displacing long-time residents. Their study looked at Greenpoint neighborhood, a polluted, industrial community in Brooklyn, New York. The “just green enough” strategy addresses the immediate environmental needs of the community by cleaning up the harmful pollution, but does not seek to change the industrial and blue-collar character of the neighborhood. The end goal is not to create a model green city or to introduce new developments such as LEED-certified developments, new parks, or a riverwalk. The “just green enough” strategy prevents developers from benefiting off of the necessary clean-up of neglected neighborhoods and makes sure people who need help are the ones benefiting from environmental justice projects. At the same time, Curran and Hamilton (2012) emphasize that maintaining a working-class neighborhood does not mean “just green enough” projects should ignore community desires to have green space. The establishment of the Newtown Creek Nature Walk in Greenpoint was viewed as a success for the existing community partly because it was not tied to residential and commercial redevelopment.
In practice, however, the “just green enough” promise may be something that will be difficult for if a city is more inclined to prioritize lucrative business deals that only benefit a wealthier class of people. Some suggest that other “just green enough” approaches may not necessarily require heavy city or state involvement. The community itself can transform derelict land or brownfields into community gardens and perhaps more “informal” green space rather than manicured parks. Although there is a lot of debate over what exactly is this threshold of environmental improvements that the “just green enough” theory implies will cause gentrification, Greenpoint is a testament to the ability of local activists to manifest a truly sustainable future.