They make oxygen, absorb pollutants, keep cities cool, capture carbon, anchor ecosystems and provide erosion control. They reduce stress and crime rates and lift us up with their sky-seeking architecture.
But not everybody gets to enjoy trees equitably. Research suggests that people living in racialized and marginalized neighbourhoods don’t have the same access to urban trees and forests as those in better-off neighbourhoods.
Nature Canada’s new report, Canada’s Urban Forests: Bringing the Canopy to All, shows who has (and doesn’t have) access to the urban treescape and provides recommendations on how to improve that access.
To explore the issue, we used both a map analysis and interviews with experts. The maps in question were municipal tree canopy maps (“canopy” is defined as the extent of tree foliage coverage). On the canopy maps of twelve Canadian cities, we superimposed data related to income and race.
Maps can give us the big picture, but only people can tell us how to change it. That’s why we also interviewed experts such as urban forest specialists, equity champions and municipal staff.
Our map analysis reinforced previous findings that tree canopy tends to be much sparser in low-income and racialized neighbourhoods. The interviews with experts highlighted some of the reasons for this: lack of funding, absence of a planning process that values trees, and weak public engagement with those communities that need trees.
Given these obstacles, how do we achieve tree equity? Many municipalities are proposing city-wide canopy targets (Toronto, for example, has committed to achieving 40% urban forest canopy cover by 2050). While laudable, such city-wide targets don’t address the needs of particular communities.
For Nature Canada, tree equity goes beyond city-wide targets and includes three elements: proximity to urban canopy (i.e., the ability of residents to actually get close to their trees), forest quality (measured in both biodiversity and the cultural needs of users), and equitable governance.
Based on our analysis, Nature Canada offers a series of recommendations to municipalities, governments and advocacy groups. A tree can grow by itself, but a pan-Canadian tree initiative needs high-level nurturing. The federal government has a role to play in achieving tree equity through such programs as the 2 Billion Tree Program (2BT) and the Natural Infrastructure Fund. These programs can prioritize tree planting in urban and near-urban landscapes while also increasing climate resilience in racialized and marginalized communities.
But cities are caretakers of their own green spaces, and much of the real progress will happen there. To municipalities across Canada, we make the following recommendations:
- Decolonize the urban forest and prioritize equity. Cities need to give voice and power to those in underserved and marginalized neighbourhoods. This is particularly important for Indigenous communities,the original caretakers of the land.
- Build urban forest strategies into the planning process. Trees cannot be an afterthought in laying out cities but must form a core part of municipal land-use policies.
- Develop tree inventories across the city and set neighbourhood targets. Tree inventories give a clear picture of the arboreal “haves” and “ have-nots.” They are an essential starting point for setting tree canopy targets by neighbourhood.
- Promote urban biodiversity. Municipalities should plant trees in order to reconnect landscapes, provide habitat for wildlife and reverse biodiversity loss.
- Incentivize tree planting on private land. Since a large part of the urban tree canopy is not found on public land, cities need to encourage private landowners to pitch in.
All these changes will come about only if citizens fight for them. Our final set of recommendations is intended for nature and community organizations:
- Spread the word by writing op-eds, organizing events, and sharing our report on your social channels.
- Identify the social and climate justice groups, tenant and community associations and tree groups in your city.
- Get to know your city’s Urban Forest Management Plan and the federal 2 Billion Tree program.
- Meet with municipal councillors to talk about tree equity.
- Start a petition to show your municipal council that tree equity is an important issue for the whole community.
- Take pictures of the tree-lush and tree-deficit neighbourhoods to send to your councillor. Post them on social media and tag relevant decision-makers.
- Start a letter-writing campaign to have community members bring the issue forward to their own councillors.
- Sign up to speak at budget, infrastructure, and environment meetings on the importance of trees in all areas of our lives.
- Offer your knowledge and support for any policy changes required.
And of course, you can always Invite Nature Canada to speak at your event or meeting. For us, trees hold up the world, and everybody should be able to enjoy their benefits equally.
Go the extra mile
Join our efforts to promote equitable access to nature by sending a letter to your Member of Parliament and Canada’s party leaders to pass Bill C-226, an Act to prevent and address environmental racism in Canada and advance environmental justice today.