Shade and safety: America invests $1.1B in trees
On September 14th, the United States Federal Government announced an historic step towards keeping people cool from scorching heat. During an appearance in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, US Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack introduced a program that will direct $1.12 billion in federal funding to plant and maintain trees in 385 communities all across the country.
The goal of the program – which draws its funding from the Inflation Reduction Act and President Biden’s Justice40 initiative – is to help protect residents from extreme heat, improve health outcomes, and increase access to the benefits of nature for more communities.
As we covered a few weeks ago, trees play an awe-inspiring and essential role in making communities safe and healthy. Among their many benefits, treed spaces in cities help improve the quality of our air and water, reduce noise pollution, keep cities cool, and prevent flooding and sewage overflow by soaking up excess rain. There are also strong connections between access to green spaces and improved mental health.
Not only do these benefits have a direct impact on our individual health, they also help to build climate safe communities by reducing the risk of illness, injury, and property damage during extreme events like floods or heat waves.
One of the most significant parts of the announcement is the program’s intention to focus on planting in vulnerable communities, which are often lower income areas with many Black, Indigenous, and people of colour.
Mounting evidence has shown that low income areas lack access to green spaces compared to higher income, majority white communities. When you combine that with the fact that these communities are also the first and hardest hit by climate impacts like floods and extreme heat, the result is the communities at greatest risk also lack equal access to the resources required to keep them safe.
In choosing to focus these projects in these areas, this program can go a long way towards addressing these unequal impacts of climate change on low income communities.
The organizations that paved the way
While this announcement is a significant and historic step by the US government, it would not have been possible without the tireless and inspiring efforts of dedicated communities and organizations, whose work has laid the foundation upon which this program is built.
Below, we highlight two of the countless organizations across the country who are working for greener, safer cities.
Cities4Forests is a collaboration of mayors’ and other city offices from 89 cities around the world, including 19 cities in the United States alone. Since 2018, this city-led movement has been raising awareness of the critical role that green spaces play in community well being, while also calling for increased investments to protect and manage green spaces in cities.
They work directly with cities by “inspiring political action and engagement, providing technical assistance, building capacity, and facilitating economic investment” with a goal of preserving and protecting urban tree cover and watershed forests.
At the grassroots community level, there is Groundwork RVA. Founded in 2013, this non profit based in Richmond, Virginia is made up of dedicated community members who share a vision of “a greener, more sustainable and more equitable” city for its residents.
Through their Green Team and Green Workforce programs, they engage Richmond youth and recent high school graduates in planning and implementing projects to green their city. Along the way, they are taught about the Urban Heat Island Effect, flooding, food sovereignty, and how developing and protecting green spaces can create safer, healthier communities.
Both of the organizations highlighted above are examples of the power that smaller, community-led movements can have to pave the way for truly transformative change. This is also the spirit that guides our work here at My Climate Plan, and serves as inspiration as we build this growing community.
Maintenance will be key
The biggest question going forward is if there will be sustained organizing to ensure the trees are maintained and expanded. Planting trees is just the first step – caring for and nurturing them requires a much longer investment of time, labour, and resources.
However, this announcement signifies an important and hopeful shift towards a government-wide understanding that trees can help build more resilient cities and protect communities – starting with those who need it most.