The trees you see around town are more than just nice to look at. On a hot day, they provide much-needed shade. When it rains, they absorb flood waters. They help filter air and absorb noise pollution, especially when planted near busy streets. And they’ve been linked to reducing stress and anxiety, among other benefits.
But thanks to decades of racist zoning laws and housing covenants, many low-income, formerly redlined neighborhoods in Charlottesville—and around the country—have little to no tree cover.
According to the Tree Commission’s latest tree canopy study, historically Black neighborhoods Starr Hill and 10th and Page have less than 20 percent tree canopy, the lowest in the city. Meanwhile, neighborhoods where racial covenants once prevented Black people from renting or buying homes—like Venable and Locust Grove—have more than 40 percent tree cover, which exceeds the commission’s goal for the city.
“We got here not accidentally, but [by] creating our cities and our policies historically,” says Brian Menard, chair of the Charlottesville Tree Commission. “With the systemic racism that disadvantaged minority communities, we created these [neighborhoods] where trees were either never part of the environment, or increasingly couldn’t be a part of [it] because there was no ability to plant them.”
With few trees to reflect the sun’s rays, the asphalt roads and concrete sidewalks in Charlottesville’s low-canopy neighborhoods absorb and radiate heat, making them up to 30 degrees hotter than their high-canopy counterparts. This is especially dangerous during the summer—heat-related illnesses kill up to 12,000 people in the U.S. per year, and climate change is only causing more intense heat waves.
Higher temperatures also make it harder to breathe, and have been linked to respiratory illnesses like asthma. Diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity, already prevalent in the Black community, are worsened by heat, as are mental health issues.
A sparse tree canopy takes a toll on residents’ pockets as well. With fewer shady places to gather during the summer, people are more likely to stay cooped up inside and run their air conditioners—if their unit includes one—all day, which leads to high energy bills.
At the height of Jim Crow, redlining systemically kept Black people from becoming homeowners in white, typically healthier neighborhoods. Black neighborhoods—regardless of income level—were considered “hazardous” for private and federal loans. Only white families were deemed worthy of investment, allowing them to easily attain mortgages and build generational wealth.
White homeowners could usually plant trees on their own property, or lobby their local government to fill their neighborhoods with parks and other green spaces. Black residents, largely forced into renting, had to rely on their landlords, who often had very little incentive or desire to invest in Black neighborhoods.
To make things worse, “poor communities of all colors in cities were often put where the slaughterhouses, mills, and factories were—places that were already environmentally inequitable,” says Menard. “Now we don’t have that kind of industry in most places….[but residents] are still suffering from the effects years and years later.”
The solution is “way more complicated” than just planting trees, warns Tree Commission member Paul Josey. The city cannot plant trees on private property without permission, and there are lots of places where there’s little room on public land for vegetation.
Additionally, the commission—which is currently all white—does not want to continue the city’s legacy of imposing the will of white people on people of color. Instead, it’s focused on “building long-term relationships and trust” with communities, says Josey, mainly by educating residents about the dangers of too few trees, and helping those who want trees, get them for free.
From 2018 to 2019, the commission knocked on hundreds of doors in Belmont—which had the most available planting area—and asked homeowners if they wanted a free tree in their front yard. With help from the Charlottesville Area Tree Stewards, they were able to plant around 45 trees.
“We did a similar effort to bring trees to some of the city’s public housing…Our education and advocacy in several cases led to actual trees going into the ground,” adds Menard. “We’ve already identified some low-canopy neighborhoods we want to start working with, but the pandemic has halted that for now.”
With more trees comes concern about gentrification. Adding green space—along with parks and playgrounds—to low-income neighborhoods could encourage more-affluent people to move in, increasing property values, and forcing the folks in need of the benefits of trees out because they no longer can afford to live there.
Josey says preventing gentrification requires fully addressing the socioeconomic consequences of redlining. The city must work to offer better employment opportunities and increase home ownership among Black residents, in addition to improving its zoning codes and building more affordable housing (with trees).
“The fact that there has been systemic injustice within housing needs to be righted,” he says. And “the key way to build investment within neighborhoods is through home ownership.”
In order to keep climate equity at the forefront, both Josey and Menard emphasize that a diverse array of community groups—from the Public Housing Association of Residents to the Community Climate Collective—must continue to work together to address this multi-faceted issue.
“This can’t be something that we just lead, because we are just volunteers,” says Josey. “It takes a lot of work, and a lot of stakeholders…It’s not just about putting a tree in the ground.”