Texas Trees for Change is Addressing Austin’s Tree Inequity Problem

Austin’s extreme winter weather at the beginning of this February perfectly contrasts the hot summer we endured in 2022. Texas’s average maximum temperature this past summer surpassed 100°F, making it the second hottest summer on record. The summer of 2011, which reached a stifling average maximum temperature of 102.7°F, is still currently the hottest summer Texas has had. However, even compared to the summer of 2011, this past July was the hottest month in recorded Texas history – with an average high of 103.7°F. Austin specifically had its hottest May, June, and July ever in 2022, resulting in a grand total of 68 days of triple-digit temperatures.

While we all had to endure this sweltering heat, some people had it worse than others. Urban heat islands describe neighborhoods around metropolitan cities significantly warmer than surrounding areas. These islands tend to contain denser concentrations of concrete buildings and pavement, which absorb heat, raising the temperature. Because concrete used in buildings and pavement absorb and give off heat, without trees to provide shade, these neighborhoods face the blistering temperatures of Texas to a much greater degree. These extreme levels of heat result in increased energy costs, air pollution, and heat-related illness and mortality. 

A core component of Urban heat islands is a lack of tree canopy. The urban tree canopy is “the layer of leaves, branches, and stems that cover the ground when viewed from above.” Without a developed tree canopy to lower surface and air temperatures through evapotranspiration, urban heat islands can be 1-7°F hotter during the day and 2-5°F hotter at night. As it turns out, this urban tree canopy directly correlates to the socio-economic status of its neighborhood. As previously mentioned, fewer trees mean higher energy costs and worse air quality, inevitably leading to health issues for inhabitants. A lack of trees can even negatively impact the economy, as a healthy tree canopy can increase the economic revenue for retail shops, prevent unnecessary road maintenance costs, and increase property values. A neighborhood’s quality of life is determined greatly by its urban tree canopy.

Credit: ESRI

People of color are disproportionately affected by this tree canopy disparity. These urban heat islands tend to be neighborhoods subjected to historic redlining, meaning the people most affected by the heat are Hispanic and African American residents.

While the urban heat island effect is apparent in almost every major city, “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.”

Upon discovering this, the flames of environmental justice lit up inside three undergraduates at The University of Texas. Colin Crawford, Sophie Velez, and I began to work on developing a solution for Austin’s tree inequity problem. Although the environmental benefits of planting trees are also important, we wanted to examine Austin’s tree population through the lens of social justice. We knew that a project of this magnitude needed to be supported by research, so we scoured the internet for resources to present new, detailed information about Austin’s tree canopy. 

Using I-35 as the dividing line, our team utilized the City of Austin’s Community Tree Priority Map to calculate the exact disparity in tree canopy coverage between East and West Austin. According to the Texas Tree Foundation, a minimum of 27% of the tree canopy is recommended to reduce exposure to harmful ultraviolet rays and pollution. Our research revealed that West Austin’s urban tree canopy is 78%, while East Austin’s is a dismal 22%. Austin reported its average tree canopy is 36%, well above the national average of 27.1%, but this average completely erases the need to address the urban heat island effect taking place on the east side of I-35. 

It is no coincidence that this tree canopy disparity disproportionately affects Austin’s people of color. Austin’s “Master Plan,” which took place in 1928, relegated the city’s Black communities to a district east of present-day I-35. In the decades after the Civil War, Austin’s African-American population lived in 15 freedmen communities they established throughout the city (many of these communities also included Mexicans and poor Whites). Several of these communities were located west of East Avenue, today’s I-35, including Clarksville, Kincheonville, the Wood Street Settlement at Shoal Creek, and Wheatville. 

Although the Supreme Court ruled in 1917 that zoning laws for the purpose of segregation were illegal, Austin’s all-white, all-male City Council adopted the city-wide “blueprint” to “save money and solve Austin’s desire to segregate the races.” Because many descendants of former slaves also resided in the area east of East Avenue, this was the area selected for the “negro district.”

A portion of the 1928 Mater Plan states: “It is our recommendation that the nearest approach to the solution of the race segregation problem will (be) the recommendation of [the area just east of East Avenue and south of the City Cemetery] as a negro district; and that all facilities and conveniences be provided the negroes in this district, as an incentive to draw the negro population to this area. This will eliminate the necessity of duplication of white and black schools, white and black parks, and other duplicate facilities for this area.” 

This redlining made it nearly impossible for residents to move, but placed far fewer restrictions on white residents to purchase homes in Austin’s heavier-canopied parts of town. In the 1950s, the planning commission zoned all east Austin property as “industrial,” affecting the residents with “lower air quality, higher temperatures due to a lack of tree cover, and other health-related issues.”

While Austin’s tree canopy disparity undoubtedly affects people of color, our team was curious as to how East Austin’s youth specifically is affected by this environmental injustice. We came across many studies demonstrating how health-related issues from a lack of tree canopy coverage uniquely impact elementary-age students both physically and mentally. These studies emphasized the importance of outdoor play and shaded areas for physical and mental health. The International Journal of Early Childhood Environmental Education concluded that “trees reduce aggression and ADHD symptoms while increasing concentration, motor development, and physical activity.”

Looking at the impact of East Austin’s tree canopy on elementary students specifically, our team discovered that 46% of AISD elementary campuses are subjected to underdeveloped tree canopies, with 18,653 students affected. 

While it is encouraged for elementary students to engage in outdoor play, we must begin to consider: are we curating a safe environment for them to do so? Austin is ranked 9th among U.S. cities for number of extreme heat days, and urban areas can be several degrees hotter due the urban heat island effect. Austin also experienced elevated air pollution for almost a third of 2020, the 3rd highest out of all Texas cities. World Health Organization Director, Dr. Maria Neria, said, “Air pollution is stunting our children’s brains, affecting their health in more ways than we suspected.” Continuing to leave these environmental issues unaddressed will have long-term impacts on our children’s health. 

Armed with this knowledge, Colin, Sophie, and I developed Texas Trees for Change. Our mission is to close the tree canopy coverage gap between the higher and lower-income communities in Austin, recognizing that this is not only an issue of environmentalism, but also social justice. Targeting elementary schools in East Austin specifically, a partnership is already in the works to begin our overall goal of making Austin a greener, safer space. We are working with the school to find areas they believe would benefit from a new sapling, and involving the students by allowing them to choose which Texas native tree they would most like to have on their campus. To make the tree even more personal to the students, we are encouraging the students to pick out the tree’s name. 

Increasing the tree canopy positively impacts children’s behavior, focus, and learning, but our goals go beyond the goal of just planting trees. Teaching elementary students the importance of trees, specifically Texas native trees, is invaluable during this stage of early development. Our team is developing a curriculum that the teachers will share with their students, so they can understand where and why the new sapling on their campus came to be. We hope this knowledge and appreciation will leave a lasting influence on the community, strengthen social development, and provide spaces for people to come together. Through Texas Trees for Change, students will gain environmental literacy by helping plant and care for the trees while working towards a greener future. 

(If you are interested in joining Texas Trees for Change, click here.)

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