It’s been nearly 30 years, and Leandro Castro can still remember how hot his neighborhood was in the summertime.
“I’m probably nine years old [at the time], my brother is seven,” Castro recalled. “I’m asking my mom, ‘Mommy can we go out to play,’ and she says it’s way too hot for us to go out and play, let’s wait until it cools down.’”
Castro grew up in the city’s Elmwood neighborhood. It’s an area that, to this day, still doesn’t have a lot of trees or available shade compared to other Providence neighborhoods. On that day in 1997 when he and his brother were kids, they kept asking their mom for permission to go outside and play, but she insisted they wait until the temperature dropped.
“It’s an extremely hot area,” Castro said.
After five o’clock on that day, his mother finally relented. They got into her 1989 Toyota Camry and drove over the city line to Cranston, to a park that was much greener, shadier, and cooler than anything in their Elmwood neighborhood.
“At the time, I didn’t notice that this area was much greener than the neighborhood I lived in,” Castro said. “But now looking back, we have the fact that we really couldn’t play in our neighborhood, we had to go to a greener side of the city to go play, and what that did do was disconnect me and our family to our neighborhood.”
Castro shared his story last month at the Zoom launch for a new initiative that aims to expand Providence’s tree canopy and bring more green to the city’s low-income neighborhoods: the PVD Tree Plan. Building off the city’s 2019 Climate Justice Plan, the PVD Tree Plan calls out inequities where Providence’s public and private trees are located and lays out a vision to bring more trees to its low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. Castro, who works as an outreach and leadership coordinator at Building Futures, was a member of the plan’s steering committee.
Like so many things, when it comes to trees in Providence, it’s a real “tale of two cities” situation. The East Side, which contains some of the wealthiest zip codes in the state, has significantly higher rates of tree canopy cover and green space compared to the rest of the city.
According to the Tree Equity Score analysis performed by American Forests, the census blocks surrounding Brown University and abutting the Seekonk River tend to have the most tree canopy coverage; more than a third of the land is covered by canopy. For the three census blocks along the Seekonk River, the number is actually higher, with anywhere from 54% to 56% tree canopy coverage.
It’s night and day when compared to a neighborhood like Elmwood. The census block that includes Grace Church Cemetery only has 20% tree canopy coverage, according to the analysis. Most census blocks in South Providence are much lower, typically hovering around 15% canopy coverage. Areas along the Port of Providence and Allens Avenue are among the lowest, with just 6% tree canopy coverage.
In total, around 27% of Providence is covered by tree canopy. That’s more than 3,221 acres and more than 415,000 trees.
“People of color, traditionally low-income folks, are the people who see the worst impacts of extreme heat, extreme flooding, and severe storms,” said Tonay Gooday-Ervin, a member of the PVD Tree Plan’s steering committee and community arborist for the Providence Neighborhood Planting Program (PNPP), at the launch event last month. “The aftereffects of going through something traumatic from the environment is so much harder to bounce back from.”
Trees are some of the most ubiquitous organisms on the planet, and for good reason; when people take care of trees, the trees take care of people. Trees help remove pollutants from the air and release oxygen for people to breathe, and they can reduce incidences of childhood asthma. In many cases, urban trees are the best frontline protection against climate change by sequestering carbon, filtering polluted stormwater runoff, and most importantly, providing shade and cooling the air.
A healthy adult tree provides shade and protection from the sun during the summer, mitigating the heat-island effect, where cities full of asphalt and concrete sustain much higher temperatures than areas outside an urban environment. A 2020 study showed that temperatures in Providence neighborhoods without a lot of trees and shade could be more than 12 degrees hotter when compared to well-vegetated areas like the East Side.
They’re also beautiful, and planting trees goes a long way toward making any community a better place to live and work.
“An equitable tree canopy is an increasingly vital piece of community infrastructure,” Gooday-Ervin said.
The PVD Tree Plan, a collaboration between a number of community groups and nonprofits, aims to aggressively spread trees and their associated benefits to everyone in Providence. The plan recommends increasing the total tree canopy in the city by 50% over the next 25 years. That would mean, in addition to maintaining the existing canopy of trees, adding 507 new total acres to the urban canopy, planting and maintaining some 30,000 trees a year, and increasing the total canopy cover in the city from 27% on average to 31%.
The plan calls for raising a dedicated $2.7 million to fund tree planting and maintenance, and calls for an urban forest community advisory board filled with BIPOC members who represent the marginalized communities historically excluded from the process, and greater, multi-lingual outreach to the public.
Currently, there are few tree programs available to low-income and BIPOC Providence residents, and tree planting and maintenance can be laborious and expensive. The programs that exist are either for street trees to be planted on public property (think the spaces adjacent or within a sidewalk), or are inaccessible to Providence residents.
PNPP, together with the city’s Forestry Division, has planted free street trees for residents since 1988, but the program doesn’t plant trees on private property. PNPP does, however, prioritize Providence neighborhoods with low tree cover.
The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management offers free trees twice a year as part of its Energy-Savings Tree program, but the agency only gives away around 1,000 trees, which go quickly, and they aren’t always in accessible locations for Providence residents to pick up.
“We know the majority of potential tree planting area in this city is on private properties in backyards, and we really need to make sure we have programs in place to do that,” said Sarah Hashem, director of youth programs for Groundwork Rhode Island and a steering committee member for the tree plan. “Without having a program in place, it turns yard trees into a luxury that’s only available to people with the time and money to invest in them.
“Having a tree in your yard can be an expense, and it’s a really important thing to have, but there can be costs associated with it.”
The city fronting those costs would have a real dollar impact on residents. According to the PVD Tree Plan, implementing the entire plan would have an estimated ecosystem service value of about $437,000 and support 220 jobs related to tree planting and maintenance. Increasing the tree canopy in Providence would sequester up to 690,000 tons of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of taking 134,000 cars off the road for a year.
More trees would prevent 10.4 million gallons of runoff from entering the waterways, and intercept a total of 34 million gallons of rainfall (the city has struggled in recent years to control flooding during intense, unpredictable storm events).
The PVD Tree Plan remains just that, a plan. It’s up to the City Council and mayor’s office to provide the funding and structure to make it a reality. Steering committee members during the plan’s launch announced they received a Collaborative Problem Solving Grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to start the urban forest community advisory board and that they will be advocating for the city to include the tree plan into its comprehensive plan update later this year.
“We invite you to think of trees as our neighbors, as our relatives, part of our community,” Gooday-Ervin said. “Because when we recognize these beings as our living neighbors, elders, caretakers, we come to understand our responsibilities to take care of them, as they take care of us. It’s about living in reciprocity.”
This story ran originally in EcoRI as https://ecori.org/pvd-tree-plan-aims-to-bring-more-green-to-neighborhoods/
Rob Smith’s enthusiasm for environmental reporting began with a middle-school report on fish kills in Greenwich Bay. Most recently, he worked as news editor at an alt-monthly, watchdogging state government response to COVID-19 and investigating underreported local issues. Rob believes in the old truism of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. In his spare time, Rob enjoys running, biking and photography.