Urban Tree Canopy Must Cover Every Neighborhood

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This graphic shows the percentage of Providence’s tree cover by neighborhood in 2007. (City of Providence)Providence lacks equal access to green space

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Numerous studies have suggested that urban green space improves public health. Trees clean the air and cool a neighborhood. Parks encourage exercise and lower stress levels. In fact, a recent study found that Providence’s urban forest is a “vital environmental resource that significantly improves air quality, water quality, and the well-being of residents.”

This precious commodity, however, is often clustered in affluent areas. Minority and low-income residents tend to live in neighborhoods covered in the gray and black of concrete and asphalt.

Providence, like many urban areas, lacks equal access to green space. The city’s total tree cover is a little more than 23 percent, according to Doug Still, Providence’s city forester. As the graphic above shows, the affluent neighborhoods of Blackstone, College Hill and Wayland have the highest percentage of tree cover. (The south Elmwood neighborhood is home to Roger Williams Park).

Eight West Side and South Side neighborhoods are all below the citywide average for tree cover. (The industrial Washington Park neighborhood is home to the Port of Providence).

Despite a slow and steady greening of these neighborhoods, a 2010 study by the Brown University Center for Environmental Studies found the distribution of trees within Providence to be uneven, with the city’s lower income neighborhoods having less canopy cover.

Access to green space is important because these areas have been associated with economic, psychological and cultural benefits.

“Providence’s urban forest — the population of public and private trees that grow along city streets and in parks, backyards, institutional property, natural areas, and other places — is vital to the city’s environment and quality of life,” according to the 50-page report released in February entitled “Providence’s Urban Forest: Structure, Effects and Values.”

“A healthy tree canopy provides essential ecological functions that can now be quantified. Trees filter the air of pollution; reduce water runoff that affects water quality; moderate urban temperatures in summer; reduce energy consumption and therefore pollution emitted by power plants; and store carbon in their wood. Trees also provide habitat for wildlife, raise the resale value of homes, and help business by making commercial districts attractive and comfortable for shopping.”

In the early 1900s, Providence was home to some 50,000 street trees. An inventory conducted in 1980 recorded just 22,320 — in seven decades more than half had been lost and never replaced. In an urban environment, street trees must be replanted to compensate for loss from age, disease, rogue vehicles and the demand for more parking.

Since 1988, in an effort to green up the city, especially in often-overlooked neighborhoods, the Providence Neighborhood Planting Program (PNPP) has co-funded the planting of nearly 7,000 street trees, with the help of many neighborhood groups and the Providence Parks Department.

Last month, the PNPP teamed up with the Friends of Knight Memorial Library, the Rhode Island Student Climate Coalition, and local elementary and middle-school students to run the “Tree Tag Project.” The project featured a short series of interactive workshops designed to teach children the importance of trees in urban environments.

On April 26, project participants, neighbors and community volunteers planted 78 trees on the city’s South Side.

“The importance of urban trees goes well beyond providing shade, cleaning the air and reducing erosion,” said Doug Victor, a Friends of Knight Memorial Library member who helped coordinate the Tree Tag Project. “Every child needs to be connected to the environment ... have a chance to climb a tree.”

Brown University junior Yi Fanzhang volunteered helping the students with their after-school art projects.

“It’s an issue of equality,” he said. “The Brown University campus is full of shade-providing trees. It’s impressive. Then three or four miles away, it’s a different environment entirely. Trees are important and we wanted to demonstrate their importance.”