In Providence an Unfair Tale of Two Tree Canopies
September 16, 2021
PROVIDENCE — Benefit Street was quiet and cool as more than 20 people gathered on a late Sunday morning to experience the stark difference in tree cover from one side of the city to the other.
The Sept. 12 event, organized by Vrinda Mathur, an industrial design graduate student at the Rhode Island School of Design and a Maharam Fellow with Social Enterprise Greenhouse, brought together tree advocates and locals to witness the impact trees make on an urban landscape. The walk and talk spotlighted the discrepancies between leafy Benefit Street and the tree-bare streets of South Providence.
“[Trees] are important for many reasons,” Mathur said. “The shade that they provide, the kind of experience you have when you’re surrounded by trees … the benefit or the impact it has on our physiological health, on our mental health.”
Tree canopy can help combat the heat-island effect, in which the built environment of urban areas absorbs heat, contributing to higher experienced daytime and nighttime temperatures than in surrounding areas.
Trees also contribute to better overall health outcomes, lower obesity rates, and fewer instances of type 2 diabetes and asthma. Social cohesion has also been linked to tree canopy and a community’s ability to enjoy a city block with protection from the sun and heat.
“When we’re changing the landscape, when we’re bringing in more trees, we’re also making it a space where people can move around, can have positive experiences,” Mathur said.
Last year, American Forests, a national conservation nonprofit formed in 1875, launched an online Tree Equity Score map, showing which census blocks have abundant tree cover and which are lacking trees and the resources to acquire them. The score, which is updated every two years, is based on environmental and demographic indicators including tree canopy cover, surface temperature, age, people of color, and percentage of people in poverty or unemployed.
According to Molly Henry, a senior climate and health manager with American Forests, the metric is meant to focus attention on which areas need the greatest investment in urban forest.
“We are really looking at how we as a community … assess and deploy resources,” Henry said.
At the corner of John and Benefit streets, the tree equity score is a perfect 100. Across the river, the census block stretching from the Jewelry District to South Providence along Eddy Street scores among the worst in the state at 63.
“There are many reasons as to why some areas may have low tree canopy and why the others may have higher ones,” Mathur said.
Areas with low tree canopy today often correlate to areas that were historically redlined or are home to large proportions of people of color.
Recent investments have advanced green infrastructure in some spaces, but, according to Henry, not all investment is put in the places that need it most. Tree canopy investments recently made in the Providence Riverwalk area may appeal to tourists, Mathur said, but have limited day-to-day impact for residents living in tree-sparse areas.
“Who is getting access to those spaces and really appreciating them?” she asked.
Last week, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management handed out 1,000 free trees to residents to help “beautify their yards, save energy, and lower their utility bills,” according to a Sept. 8 press release. Within a week, all trees had been claimed. But, according to Mathur, these trees may not be getting to the places that need them most.
She said this style of program presents some “logistical or administrative” issues. The trees were available for pick up only, she noted, which can make it difficult for those without a car to take advantage of the program.
She said the sapling giveaway was not widely publicized. Alerting neighborhood groups or posting signs in community centers could help spread the word further, she added, and get trees to the state’s most exposed urban areas.
Tree-planting programs also often must be “citizen-led,” Mathur said. Community members take on a years-long task of tree maintenance with limited immediate reward. This puts areas with a high volume of renters — who may not care about multi-year investment — and low-income residents — who may not be able to spend time and money on such a project — at a disadvantage.
“I think the solution really isn’t just coming in and planting trees,” said Cassie Tharinger, executive director of the Providence Neighborhood Planting Program, a Providence-focused street tree stewardship program. “There are real structural and material barriers. … What has to happen is shifting and tackling that.”