Nicknamed The Emerald City in 1982 and boasting more than four million trees, Seattle has maintained its namesake for decades through its commitment to urban forestry.
Data as recent as 2016, however, depicts a nationwide pattern of green spaces being unequally distributed through different neighborhoods and communities.
“The City of Seattle — and this is unusual for urban forestry management plans that are usually focused on environmental services — [has incorporated] an extensive engagement with the community to determine what [their] green needs [are] and how to address them in an equitable way,” research social scientist at the University of Washington, Kathleen Wolf said.
Wolf reviewed the city’s recently released draft of the 2020 Urban Forest Management Plan (UFMP), a detailed framework for future city government policy that will protect, restore, and grow the city’s urban forest. This plan is its most community and equity centered urban forestry plan thus far, Wolf explained, and its future research goals include analyzing data on the benefits of trees as an equity issue.
“I know that this engagement was at the core of the document construction … by way of partnership with local [and] neighborhood organizations across multiple communities,” Wolf said. “It took more time, it took more people, but it will be a milestone urban forest management plan for this nation because of this engagement process that has been included.”
“It took more time, it took more people, but it will be a milestone urban forest management plan for this nation because of this engagement process that has been included.”
— Kathleen Wolf, research social scientist
Green spaces, typically defined as spaces with vegetative covering, pose a number of co-benefits for cities. Amidst a pandemic, coupled by the stress of systemic and structural inequities, green spaces have become some of the only safe areas outside one’s residence to interact with the physical earth and feel a semblance of relief.
With the unequal distribution of green spaces primarily affecting low-income BIPOC communities, the ability to frequent a nearby park or even see a tree can depend on a neighborhood’s race and ethnicity and socioeconomic status. Greater access and closer proximity to urban forestry can also impact feeling temperature extremities.
“For decades there’s been recognition of the urban heat island effect, but that has been exaggerated and exacerbated by climate change and ongoing carbon emissions,” Wolf said. “The hotter places in the city tend to be the underserved communities where there is less green, less trees, fewer parks, and so on.”
In Seattle the disparity is clear, as the percentage of existing tree canopy vastly varies by neighborhood and area. These tree canopy differences are apparent specifically in Rainier Valley, South Park, and Georgetown neighborhoods. The city cited a statistically significant inverse relationship between the percentage of tree canopy and the percentage of BIPOC.
“I think that our urban forest as it is right now is a product of management practices and racial inequities that have been going on for the past 100 years and it’s hard to undo that,” Jana Dilley said.
Dilley is the pollution prevention community engagement manager for Seattle Public Utilities and was also involved with the UFMP draft.
Engaging the community can be crucial when expanding green spaces in the city, as there can be unintended consequences of introducing urban forestry, such as gentrifying a neighborhood and displacing its communities. By centering community goals and wishes with green spaces, the city can ensure that it is expanding through intentional, comprehensive measures.
Engaging the community can be crucial when expanding green spaces in the city, as there can be unintended consequences of introducing urban forestry, such as gentrifying a neighborhood and displacing its communities.
Dilley stated that in previous green ventures, the city had not engaged the community. It simply entered neighborhoods, planted trees, and then left. Moreover, in many neighborhoods planting trees was not feasible, as the neighborhood itself was not designed to include planting strips or parks.
“We weren’t listening to what residents had to say to us about the management of the trees,” Dilley said. “We can’t just come into a neighborhood with a history that has been shaped for many years by these policies, [which did not give] urban forestry a thought, and then just plant a tree and [claim] it’s fixed.”
“We can’t just come into a neighborhood with a history that has been shaped for many years by these policies, [which did not give] urban forestry a thought, and then just plant a tree and [claim] it’s fixed.”
— Jana Dilley, pollution prevention community engagement manager for Seattle Public Utilities
The new UFMP better addresses this by including conversations with different communities, including Black, Indigenous, and people of color living in and around the Greater Seattle region. The plan states that this outreach was limited, engaging 160 people, but, as Dilley stated, made considerable progress from previous years’ drafts.
Green spaces should be spread more equally across the whole city, since the co-benefits of urban forestry are expansive — especially in Seattle where it constantly rains. Co-benefits include health improvements, stormwater management, and ecological sustainability. Smart urban planning can achieve this in tactful, novel ways.
“We see an extensive body of evidence about nature and health benefits, and these benefits come from a variety of nature experiences,” Wolf said. “It might be immersions, such as walking in the woods, or a nice street scape — it might [even] be looking out the window.”
There is a breadth of ways one can feel benefits from green spaces, beyond visiting a grand park or enduring a long excursion, and the cognitive advantages are well-researched and universal. Additionally, as with most ecologically sustainable practices, expanding green spaces serves multifold benefits.
For example, some schools adjacent to busy roads or highways encounter higher levels of air pollution, measured by nitrogen dioxide. Small children inhaling this air can suffer from various respiratory illnesses including asthma or sustained coughing. The city could plant green screens, proven effective against nitrogen dioxide, surrounding the school to act like buffers and absorb air pollutants, serving both the environment and the health of the school.
Another adaptation specific to Seattle is green stormwater infrastructure.
“Trees help slow the flow of stormwater, so [when it] rains if it falls on the tree instead of the pavement, the tree then traps that stormwater and keeps it from flowing into our surface waters,” Dilley said. “If it falls [onto] the pavement, then it picks up all the pollutants from our cars on the roads and [flushes] it into our water.”
Bioswales, rain gardens, and other green infrastructure save the city a substantial amount of money and hinder harmful stormwater runoff from leaking into neighboring bodies of water — protecting marine ecosystems.
As the city of Seattle hopes to increase their canopy cover to 30% by 2037, an urban forestry plan that is grounded in community-centered dialogue and equity-based measures ensures that green spaces are being equally distributed and equally benefited from.
“My message is: Let’s invest in more green. Let’s do so in strategic, comprehensive, and tactical ways such as co design for co-benefits. Let’s do so in ways that integrate nature effectively and more fairly in our communities,” Wolf said. “By investing in nature, we are investing in ourselves, and we can [then] capture funding that can go into stewarding and maintaining our green space systems.”
Last updated 12/7/20
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