AUSTIN (KXAN) – Austin is growing. But not just in the ways you might think.

The City of Austin recently released data showing it made progress in the goal to increase Austin’s tree canopy to 50% by 2050. 

The tree canopy is the total percentage of a jurisdiction covered by trees, leaves and branches. The city calculates the canopy percentage every four years. For 2022, it was 41% – up 6% since 2018 and 11% since 2006, when it was at 30% coverage. 

“Having a healthy and robust urban forest is an asset to the city in so many ways,” said Emily King, the Urban forester for the city. “We’re in a very hot time, so providing shade to cool down people, surfaces, and critters – that part is very, very valuable in our context,” King continued.

“Trees also kind of act as nature’s air conditioners through a process called evapotranspiration, where they literally make the air around them cooler,” King said. 

One group helping the city achieve this goal is TreeFolks, which has planted over three million trees in Austin since the late 1980s. 

“Treefolk’s contribution is pretty significant. We are the only organization in Central Texas dedicated to rebuilding our urban canopy and committed to reforestation in the long term,” said TreeFolks Executive Director Andrew Smiley. 

Treefolks told KXAN that the benefits of a large urban canopy are numerous – “they’ll all contribute by removing carbon dioxide from the air, reducing greenhouse gasses, mitigating climate change, improving the air quality, providing habitat for wildlife, providing shade, making the city more beautiful and more pleasant to be in,” said Gillian Holder, TreeFolks volunteer coordinator. 

And both the local and Federal governments are recognizing those benefits. 

“TreeFolks, along with 15 other organizations, collaborated on a proposal that would bring over $35 million to the Austin area to be invested over five years in improving our tree canopy,” Smiley said. “It’s a proposal that will not only address tree canopy cover but will also invest in green jobs training – helping to prepare people for careers in the environmental sectors, specifically in tree planting or tree care.”

“That will really have – I think – a transformational effect on our on our region,” he continued. 

Locally, District 5 Council Member Ryan Alter proposed an amendment to the city’s FY24 budget, which gave $650,000 to a TreeFolks-led program called NeighborWoods. City council members approved this amendment. 

East and West Divide

In many cities around the U.S., wealthier neighborhoods tend to have more trees than less wealthy ones. This pattern can also be seen in Austin. 

“There’s a stark difference between what the canopy looks like from a bird’s eye view between west Austin and east Austin if you divide it by [Interstate] 35,” said Alan Halter, a geospatial analyst for the city.

This is partially due to the western and eastern sides of Austin being in two distinct ecoregions – the west side lands on the Edwards Plateau and the east on the Blackland Prairie.  

“[The Edwards Plateau] historically has held a lot more tree canopy. That’s also where we see a lot of our wealthier neighborhoods. And so that is at play there,” Halter said. 

Halter said that his team has compared canopy data with the city’s socioeconomic data to understand where the city should have tree planting efforts.

“We’ve worked very closely with TreeFolks in order to do that through something called the Community Tree Priority Map. And that’s another map…that you can see how we’re prioritizing across Austin,” Halter said.