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A simple act to combat systemic racism: planting a tree | COMMENTARY

Serena Onabola, right, Director of the Zeta Center for Healthy and Active Aging, takes information from people on line to determine if they are eligible for free fans. Most of the fans were distributed to drivers with cars, but most of those who walked up were also able to receive fans. The 1200 fans were distributed in two hours, but additional fans will be available for curbside pickup at the Cherry Hill Senior Center on July 23, and at other sites in the next two weeks, as the heat wave continues. Older Baltimore City residents or caregivers can call the Maryland Access Point at 410-396-CARE to check to see if they qualify for a free box fan. July 21, 2020
Serena Onabola, right, Director of the Zeta Center for Healthy and Active Aging, takes information from people on line to determine if they are eligible for free fans. Most of the fans were distributed to drivers with cars, but most of those who walked up were also able to receive fans. The 1200 fans were distributed in two hours, but additional fans will be available for curbside pickup at the Cherry Hill Senior Center on July 23, and at other sites in the next two weeks, as the heat wave continues. Older Baltimore City residents or caregivers can call the Maryland Access Point at 410-396-CARE to check to see if they qualify for a free box fan. July 21, 2020 (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

We’ve been told repeatedly during the pandemic that the safest way to socialize is outside. But in the dog days of summer, in a city in particular, outside is often the last place one wants to be. Temperatures can vary by as much as 20 degrees from one urban area to the next, depending on the level of tree cover and paved surfaces. Not surprisingly, the tonier areas are greener, and therefore cooler, and the lower-income sections are covered in heat-amplifying concrete. So, while money may not grow on trees, it certainly correlates.

A quick comparison of an income map and a tree canopy map of Baltimore shows a direct relationship. For instance, the Greater Roland Park area, among the wealthiest regions in the city, has significantly more tree cover than low-income Sandtown-Winchester. The disparity crosses racial lines as well as income brackets. The Greater Roland Park/Poplar Hill area is 83% white, and only 7% Black, while the Sandtown-Winchester/Harlem Park is 97% Black and 1% white. Such discrepancies lead to more than discomfort: those in low-income urban areas are much less likely to have air conditioning, and much more likely to die from heat-related illnesses or to have existing conditions exacerbated from extreme temperatures.

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Such “heat islands” are yet another consequence of years of systemic oppression and segregation practices in America, such as redlining, a form of lending discrimination largely inflicted on people of color in urban areas. But while dismantling those institutional ills is a massive undertaking that will require much more than one person’s initiative, there is something individuals can do to lessen the burden on the city’s hottest, and likely poorest, areas: Plant more trees.

Lisa McNeilly, director of the Baltimore Office of Sustainability, said Baltimore increased the tree canopy by 1% between 2007 and 2015. That may seem small, but it’s an increase of 200 acres of trees that’s particularly focused on historically underserved neighborhoods. Such an increase is rare; many other cities have seen a decrease in tree canopy. Baltimore, then, is leading the way. It’s something we should be proud of — and ramp up.

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The Baltimore Tree Trust notes that “while there are countless ways to contribute to sustainable community development in Baltimore City, we trust that by investing in the planting and care of trees, as well as the education and development of those who tend to them, Baltimore can be a leader in the field of green infrastructure and its impacts on public and environmental health.”

Let’s listen to them.

As we appreciate nature for the respite it offers from the musty indoors, and the chance to gather with loved ones without a reduced fear of COVID-19 spread, we would do well to remember that not all areas offer the same opportunities. Planting a tree is a simple act that can be life-changing. Anti-racism education and efforts are not complete unless they also address the environmental issues that have been disproportionately thrust upon people of color.

Planting trees won’t solve the world’s biggest problems, but it will have an impact on two of the biggest: climate change and racism. So plant some trees in areas that need them, then care for them. Those trees, in turn, will care for us.

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