Urban trees are much more than lovely greenery and stately landscape features. Scientists believe trees are a key tool for combating climate change and living with warming temperatures in California.
UC Cooperative Extension is bringing together municipal and nonprofit organizations, homeowners associations, contractors, the green industry and educators to increase the tree canopy in urban areas by planting recommended species. Nearly 200 people gathered online in March 2021 to share research results, accomplishments and tree canopy growth strategies at the “Trees for Tomorrow Start Today” workshop.
Iowa communities would be able to use a new redevelopment tool – land banks – to revitalize abandoned or dilapidated real estate if a bill in the House of Representatives passes.
The House Ways and Means Committee discussed SF 100 on March 18.
Under the bill any municipality could create a land bank and appoint a board of directors possessing the ability to hire staff. The public would be able to review the inventory of land the bank manages and maintains. A land bank would bring together public sector and private sector citizens to find ways to repurpose and redevelop properties “without a lot of upfront economic value,” Norris said.
To find out just how much one tree can do, you can even estimate the value of the benefits of a specific tree near you using a calculator developed by a collaboration of tree experts and nonprofits.
The trouble is that these benefits are not equitably distributed. “Nationally, there’s a trend for trees to follow wealth,” said Leslie Berckes, director of programs for Trees Forever, a nonprofit environmental group that works with communities across Iowa and Illinois to plant and care for trees. She said wealthier communities tend to have more trees for a variety of reasons, including racist housing practices. “Redlining left a lot of scars on communities, one of those being less green space, less tree cover,” Berckes said.
As an urban planning academic who teaches a course on food justice, I’m aware that this disparity is in large part through design. For over a century, urban planning has been used as a toolkit for maintaining white supremacy that has divided U.S. cities along racial lines. And this has contributed to the development of so-called “food deserts” – areas of limited access to reasonably priced, healthy, culturally relevant foods – and “food swamps” – places with a preponderance of stores selling “fast” and “junk” food.
Both terms are controversial and have been contested on the grounds that they ignore both the historical roots and deeply racialized nature of food access, whereby white communities are more likely to have sufficient availability of healthy, reasonably priced produce.
Regardless of what they are called, these areas of inequitable food access and limited options exist. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 54.4 million Americans live in low-income areas with poor access to healthy food. For city residents, this means they are more than half a mile from the nearest supermarket.
More expensive, fewer options
The development of these areas of limited healthy food options has a long history tied to urban planning and housing policies. Practices such as redlining and yellowlining – in which the private sector and government conspired to restrict mortgage lending to Black and other minority homebuyers – and racial covenants that limited rental and sale property to white people only meant that areas of poverty were concentrated along racial lines.
This matters when looking at food access because retailers are less willing to go into poorer areas. A process of “supermarket redlining” has seen larger grocery stores either refuse to move in to lower-income areas, shut existing outlets or relocate to wealthier suburbs. The thinking behind this process is that as pockets in a city become poorer, they are less profitable and more prone to crime.
There is also, scholars suggest, a cultural bias among large retailers against putting outlets in minority-populated areas. Speaking about why supermarkets were fleeing the New York borough of Queens in the 1990s, the city’s then-Consumer Affairs Commissioner Mark Green put it this way: “First they may fear that they do not understand the minority market. But second is their knee-jerk premise that Blacks are poor, and poor people are a poor market.”
In the absence of larger grocery stores, less healthy food options – often at a higher price – have taken over in low-income areas. Research among food providers in New Haven, Connecticut in 2008 found “significantly worse average produce quality” in lower-income neighborhoods. Meanwhile a study of New Orleans in 2001 found fast-food density was higher in poorer areas, and that predominantly Black neighborhoods had 2.5 fast-food outlets for every square mile, compared to 1.5 in white areas.
‘Whole Foods and whole food deserts’
Geographer Nathan McClintock conducted a detailed study in 2009 of the causes of Oakland’s food deserts. Although restricted to one Californian city, I believe what he found holds true for most U.S. cities.
McClintock details how the development of racially segregated areas in the inter-war period and redlining policies afterward led to concentrated areas of poverty in Oakland. Meanwhile, decisions in the late 1950s by the then all-white Oakland City Council to build major freeways cutting through the city effectively isolated predominantly Black West Oakland from downtown Oakland.
The net effect was an outward flow of capital and white flight to the wealthy Oakland Hills neighborhoods. Black and Latino neighborhoods were drained of wealth.
As much as urban planning has been part of the problem, it could now be part of the solution. Some cities have begun using planning tools to increase food equity.
Minneapolis, for example, has as part of its 2040 plan an aim to “establish equitable distribution of food sources and food markets to provide all Minneapolis residents with reliable access to healthy, affordable, safe and culturally appropriate food.” To achieve this, the city is reviewing urban plans, including exploring and implementing regulatory changes to allow and promote mobile food markets and mobile food pantries.
My hometown of Boston is engaged in a similar process. In 2010, the city began the process of establishing an urban agriculture overlay district in the predominantly Black and Latino neighborhood of Dorchester, by changing zoning to allow commercial urban agriculture. This change has provided employment for local people and food for local cooperatives, such as the Dorchester Food Coop, as well as area restaurants.
And this could be just the start. My students and I contributed to Boston mayoral candidate Michelle Wu’s Food Justice Agenda. It includes provisions such as a formal process in which private developers would have to work with the community to ensure there is space for diverse food retailers and commercial kitchens, and licensing restrictions to discourage the proliferation of fast-food outlets in poorer neighborhoods. If Wu is elected and the plan implemented, it would, I believe, provide more equitable access to nutritious and culturally appropriate foods, good jobs and economically vibrant neighborhoods.
As Wu’s Food Justice Agenda notes: “Food justice means racial justice, demanding a clear-eyed understanding of how white supremacy has shaped our food systems” and that “nutritious, affordable, and culturally relevant food is a universal human right.”
Understanding what drives economic, social, and educational disparities between communities is one of urbanism’s most critical and highly-discussed topics. It’s an increasingly complex issue, with many factors at play- one of them being the design and location of desirable urban green spaces. While sometimes they are a tool that helps to bolster underserved communities in terms of health and economic benefits, safety, and climate resistance, other times they can actually drive out the residents that they are created to serve. Now, the challenge lies in how to design these recreational sites to create better futures for all.
Suburbia often has a bad rep. But it is important to recognize that these areas, built for cars and modern living with all of its excess and waste, do have certain benefits. In many ways, our suburbs are perfect for a more sustainable way of life. Redesigning suburbia for a sustainable future offers exciting opportunities for us to build back better, and create thriving and resilient communities that can last.
In northern California, forests are at risk of becoming a landscape dominated by shrubs and small trees as wildfires become dramatically more intense and temperatures rise. In North Carolina, coastal forests are expected to shift inland as sea levels rise.
Humans have unleashed an avalanche of changes on landscapes, writes Robert Scheller in a new book, “Managing Landscapes for Change.” As landscape change accelerates due to climate change, invasive pests and diseases, housing development, natural disasters and other forces, Scheller describes how land managers and communities should expect change and plan for it. Scheller is a professor of forestry and environmental resources at North Carolina State University.
“Humans have a lot of capacity to shape the future and the future of landscapes,” Scheller said. “Land managers, politicians and scientists need to be greater advocates for being proactive, and we need to get ahead of the change and not simply respond to it.”
To learn more, we interviewed Scheller about the book.