Wealthier cities and neighborhoods have more trees than poor ones – so much so that you can apparently see the difference from space.
The existence of this disparity isn’t news, exactly – the basic research on tree disparity between rich and poor neighborhoods was done a few years back. According to Tim De Chant at Per Square Mile, those researchers
found that for every 1 percent increase in per capita income, demand for forest cover increased by 1.76 percent. But when income dropped by the same amount, demand decreased by 1.26 percent.
De Chant writes that his biggest concern comes from the realization that this kind of relationship is highly suggestive of the demand curve for a luxury good, and not a necessity. He’s right about that: demand for necessities is less flexible – or elastic, as economists say – as income changes. If we were looking at the demand curve for a necessity, we would see the demand change by less than the change in income, so a 1 percent decrease in income would result in a decrease in demand of less than 1 percent. (Yes, that’s an oversimplification, but it’s enough to get the point across for this post.)
Does our society consider trees to be a luxury good? More to the point, should they be considered a luxury good?
They generate oxygen and shade, they hold soil in place, they can change the character of a place from barren to welcoming (a very subjective standard, I know), and they add to the resale value of homes that have them. Yes, there’s raking involved in the care and maintenance of trees, but what’s fall without leaves on the ground?
But beyond that, trees can be a critical part of street-level placemaking. Lining a street with trees makes it feel more like an enclosed space – as far as our brains are concerned, trees act in a way that is similar to buildings that front a street, which makes us feel like we are a part of our surroundings instead of apart from them.
For example, imagine a modern-ish subdivision with no trees (if you’ve lived in Florida at pretty much any point since the 1970s, this should be no problem). These streetscapes are often dominated by wide and flat front yards, with the houses themselves set back 20 feet or more from the street itself. I don’t know how those places feel to you, but I find that with nothing lining the streets, they often feel empty and a little desolate. If you’re standing in the middle of the street in one of these subdivisions, the houses themselves can all seem very distant, which detracts mightily from the process of building a sense of place.
What this suggests is that poorer neighborhoods are going to have a tougher go at effective placemaking, in part because of the lack of trees. A commenter at grist.org suggests that residents of poor neighborhoods naturally think of trees as luxuries because they have more important things on their minds, like basic survival. Personally, I have a problem with that line of thought because it absolves municipalities of any responsibilities for the unequal distribution of trees that favors rich neighborhoods at the expense of poor ones.
A lack of trees in poor neighborhoods can also contribute to the disparity in home resale value between those neighborhoods and richer ones. Their absence can then become yet another factor in the continuation of the cycle of poverty afflicting poorer neighborhoods and the people who live there.
Obviously, urban poverty in America is not going to be solved by planting trees. And if you think about it, the lack of trees is more of a symptom than a cause of poverty. But addressing and mitigating poverty is not something that can only be done via high-dollar federal programs. If it happens, it will be because of the cumulative effect of dozens – maybe hundreds – of baby steps and seemingly-inconsequential actions and decisions.
Like planting more trees in poor neighborhoods, for example.