river and trees

Why trees can help heal cities

There’s a critical opportunity to advance equality and improve the health of local communities — all by supporting the natural environment in urban areas

Trees absorb planet-heating carbon dioxide, provide cooling shade, improve air quality, reduce energy use and contribute to better health. But these benefits should not be limited to pristine stretches of rural woodlands. One of the most important fronts in the battle to restore the environment and combat the effects of climate change involves the renewal of what are called urban forests, which can include city parks, tree-lined streets, greenways, wetlands and more. 

In many U.S. cities, particularly in low-income and underserved neighborhoods, tree cover is sparse and increasingly in danger. The wealthiest neighborhoods in the U.S. have 65% more tree cover than the neighborhoods with the highest poverty levels, according to the conservation nonprofit American Forests.footnote1 The term for this imbalance is “tree inequity,” and it can have profound effects on health, climate resiliency, and even economic opportunity. 

“Communities with barriers to resources — including trees and green space — are often those most highly impacted by climate change and natural disasters,” says Dan Lambe, president of the Arbor Day Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to planting trees.

As part of its commitment to environmental justice, Bank of America is working closely with nonprofits and local partners across the globe to support regreening and urban forest management projects designed to bring both trees and jobs to low- and moderate-income areas in U.S. cities and abroad.

In the video above, Arron Nelson of Detroit, Michigan, shares how a job training program for tree conservation led to a life-changing career, just one example of the economic value of regreening. In fact, for every dollar spent on nature restoration, at least nine dollars of economic benefit can be expected in return, according to the findings of nonprofit Nature4Climate.footnote2 “Workforce development programs that provide tree equity are a pathway to livable wage jobs and a long-term career,” says Tiffany Douglas, Bank of America senior VP and market executive for Michigan. 

An abundance of benefits

The economic benefits of investing in forests go beyond job creation. The Chicago Urban Forest Climate Project found that a 10% increase in street tree cover could lower annual energy costs by 5% to 10%, a meaningful reduction at a time when many U.S. cities are suffering under the strains of increased energy consumption.footnote3

Conversely, a lack of tree cover has proven negative consequences. Especially in many low- and moderate-income neighborhoods, scarce shade and an abundance of heat-absorbing asphalt create what’s called the “urban heat island effect.” Temperatures in these heat islands can run as much as 10 degrees hotter than nearby areas with more trees, exacerbating the deadly effects of heat waves, reducing air quality, and leading to chronic illnesses, such as asthma and other respiratory ailments.footnote4

Trees will continue to be an important tool in combating the effects of climate change. Forests capture 15% of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels, the Environmental Protection Agency reports, and tree conservation and restoration can double that rate.footnote5 “Planting and preserving trees is real climate action we can take now to address some of the historical inequities and look towards climate mitigation in the future,” says Joel Pannell, vice present of urban forest policy at American Forests.

The advantages trees offer make the efforts to regreen our cities even more imperative. “Trees are a cost-effective tool with multiple benefits, including carbon capture, reducing urban heat island effects, protecting against storm water runoff and helping clean the air,” says Rich Brown, environmental program director at Bank of America. “It is critical that we bring the natural infrastructure of trees to socioeconomically disadvantaged communities.”

Funding a greener future

For nearly a decade, urban reforesting efforts have played a major role in Bank of America’s work to address environmental issues while providing job opportunities. These local initiatives have immediate effects in their respective neighborhoods, but those benefits can also percolate out to entire regions and, ultimately, the world.

  • In 2013, the Bank joined American Forests to launch Community ReLeaf, a program that focuses on assessing, restoring, and monitoring urban forests in the U.S. Since then, the bank has aided with mass tree-planting efforts in Houston, Texas, and Boston, Massachusetts, and helped establish a city-owned business in Baltimore, Maryland, that processes and sells wood categorized as waste, among other projects.
  • The bank works closely with the Arbor Day Foundation to support reforesting projects in a dozen U.S. cities. These efforts focus on low- and moderate-income neighborhoods and involve a range of actions developed and implemented with the help of local partners. For example, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Friends of Grand Rapids Parks is working with the Mayor’s Greening Initiative to plant 1,500 trees, address storm water runoff mitigation, and improve green space and wildlife habitats. In Philadelphia, the Riverfront North Partnership is adding new trees throughout the city to help mitigate urban heat island effects. 
  • On a broader scale, in 2020 Bank of America helped launch the U.S. chapter of 1t.org, an international movement to support the conservation, restoration and growth of one trillion trees globally by 2030, including 855 million trees in the U.S. These efforts will focus not just on planting the trees, but also on workforce development and creating new technologies.

Countering the roots of inequality and effects of climate change over the coming decades will take the combined and cooperative action of governments, nonprofits and the private sector, and Bank of America is supporting this transition to a low-carbon, sustainable economy through its operations, business activities and partnerships. Learn more about the bank’s commitments to sustainability and racial equality and economic opportunity, as well as its efforts to mobilize capital to address critical environmental and social issues affecting local communities across the country.

1/14/2022