Austin’s poorest neighborhoods don’t have enough trees, report shows

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AUSTIN (KXAN) – With several lush greenbelts and an abundance of parks, Austin’s a paradise for people who love trees. Not only do trees make areas cooler, they provide homes for wildlife and help reduce carbon emissions.

But lower income neighborhoods aren’t getting the same benefits.

A new report compiled by the conservation non-profit American Forests found Austin’s high income and low income neighborhoods have a 20% disparity in canopy coverage: the widest gap in the nation.

Understanding Austin’s “Tree Equity” Score

Last month, the group took a closer look at cities across the nation and scored their “tree equity.” They then map each city’s score, neighborhood by neighborhood.

“Austin is a star in many ways, with a citywide score of 96. That’s really good,” says Jad Daley, president and CEO of American Forests.

“Our score is able figure out how much tree cover we have in our cities, neighborhood by neighborhood, and how much tree coverage could be there,” said Daley.

For example, several parts of Downtown received a tree equity score of 100 because they already have as many trees as they can support. Places like Muller, which scored a 66, could support many more trees.

“The tree canopy gaps in Austin very strongly correlate with income and race in ways that transcend race,” Daley says. “There are some neighborhoods in Austin that are lagging behind.”

Addressing Tree Canopy in Austin

Austin’s Urban Forester, Emily King, says that addressing tree equity issues is part of the city’s urban forestry plan. She and the city’s Development Services Department created a Community Tree Priority map of their own, similar to American Forest’s map.

King says the two biggest challenges they discovered with planting new trees are weather and funding related. The booming development in the city is also a concern, but King says the city has several programs in place. These include a program allowing new developments that tear down existing trees paying to have new trees planted to replace the canopy they remove.

One way they’re improving our canopy is through community involvement.

“On the east side of town, having more engagement is certainly a helpful way to go,” King says. “One of the way we can do that is engaging with the youth.”

In 2020, the city launched the Youth Forest Council and Park Ranger Cadets. They recruited a dozen area youths to help plant and develop community action plans. That’s not the only way they’re encouraging planting. They distribute 4,500 trees a year to people wanting to plant through local non-profits like Tree Folks.

“I tend to get very excited about tree planting and tree stewardship,” King said. “I feel those are the areas where we have some control over the impacts on our city.”

King says that planting is relatively easy in Austin for homeowners, but it can be expensive to do so on a citywide level. “Growing the canopy we already have keeping the canopy is a topic for the whole community.”

The Future of Tree Equity

Overall, Daley’s optimistic about Austin’s canopy. The city scored as one of the most equitable in the country, He says only 149,000 trees are needed for the city to get a 100% tree equity score. Planting these trees would have huge benefits.

“More than 1000 jobs would be supported by [the new] tree planting. [They] would capture 70 tons of air pollution a year and provide over a million dollars a year in eco system benefits,” Daley says. “We feel really confident that Austin can be one of the first to get all the way there. To having tree equity for everyone.”

King is aware of the challenges Austin is facing if we want to improve our canopy. Between a developing city and the challenges presented by climate change, she says regardless of the sterling score, there’s still much work to do.

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