Officials with the state and city of Seattle on Thursday launched a renewed effort to plant trees in urban areas most affected by pollution, flooding and other extreme weather events, like the unprecedented 2021 heat wave that smashed record highs and killed more than 150 people in Washington.
As birds sang and tree branches swayed in Delridge’s Roxhill Park, the state Department of Natural Resources announced the new partnership with American Forests, a nonprofit that works in forest restoration and conservation to help bolster cities’ resilience to climate change.
The partnership will expand statewide mapping of which neighborhoods have enough trees to provide lower temperatures, shade and other benefits, in relation to income, employment, race, age and health factors. DNR hopes that data will help inform communities’ work around urban forestry.
Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said the state is committed to helping cities plant 2.6 million trees. The state was recently awarded $6 million from the Inflation Reduction Act for urban forestry efforts.
Leaders of Washington’s cities and towns can also sign onto a pledge to join a statewide collaborative, where DNR hopes city officials, researchers and representatives from tribal nations and community organizations will share strategies to nurture and expand tree canopy in their cities.
“The foundation of the whole tree-equity movement is community-based organizations,” said Jad Daley, president and CEO of American Forests. “Those front-line organizations are out there at the absolute ground level, making this happen every single day.”
Willard Brown, a champion of Seattle’s green spaces and member of Duwamish Alive, said the community, especially people with lower incomes and people of color, have been out there working in their free time to protect Seattle’s trees, parks and wetlands. But they need real investments from the city.
Seattle was the first to sign onto the pledge. This year, Mayor Bruce Harrell signed an executive order requiring three trees be planted for every tree that’s axed, and two trees planted for each hazardous, invasive or dead tree. The order comes alongside a recent city assessment that found the city lost 255 acres of tree canopy from 2016 to 2021.
Thursday’s pledge doubles down on the city’s commitment to plant and grow 8,000 trees on public and private properties and an additional 40,000 seedlings in natural areas in the next five years. By the end of next year the city is supposed to develop a Tree Canopy Equity and Resilience Plan.
“We have more work to do to protect and grow our canopy,” Harrell said in West Seattle on Thursday. “We start with the data — we’re not afraid in this state and in the city to open up with our data — following that data and leading with equity.”
How we got here
Redlining, or racially discriminatory mortgage and land-use policies, shaped the inequities that persist today. The term comes from New Deal era homeownership programs that restricted where people could buy or rent property based on their income, ethnicity and race, literally redlining some communities deemed risky for investments.
“They didn’t plant trees,” said Kristie Ebi, a professor at the University of Washington’s Center for Health and the Global Environment. “The intention was to make those areas less nice to live in. And part of the less nice to live in was they didn’t plant as many trees. It was part of the whole redlining process.”
South Seattle neighborhoods experience the worst industrial and traffic pollution, with jets whizzing overhead every few seconds and a steady stream of cars, trucks and buses on their way to the industrial district where diesel equipment hums for hours a day.
A study in the early 2000s was among the first to begin to link air pollution and the number of people with asthma in Beacon Hill and other South Seattle neighborhoods.
And on a hot summer day, a King County study revealed that communities along the Duwamish might experience temperatures 10 or more degrees higher than neighborhoods up north like Ballard.
More than 150 people died of heat-related illness during the 2021 Pacific Northwest “heat dome,” according to the state Department of Health. New estimates from a University of Washington study suggest that an additional 159 people died during the event.
“Just driving the city, I’m on my way home right now and I’m about to hit 45th, 50th Street,” Matt Remle said in a phone call this week. “These are massive trees up here, we don’t have anything like that in the South End, at least in our neighborhood.”
Remle, a resident of NewHolly who serves on Seattle’s Green New Deal oversight board, said his landlord put limits on the kind of air conditioning families could use in their homes, so in extreme heat, he and his family have no more than one cool room.
On any given hot summer day in the early 2000s, his family would typically head to the Van Asselt Community Center so his young kids could cool off in the wading pool.
“That was supposed to be where you go to cool,” Remle said, “but you couldn’t, because it was just, the heat is bearing straight down on you.”
Neighborhood organizations like the Duwamish Valley Youth Corps have been leading efforts to plant trees in communities with the least tree canopy, but the benefits won’t be fully realized until the trees mature and provide some shade.
In 2007, Seattle committed to covering just one third of the city with trees by 2037. The city was nearing that goal in 2016, but lost an additional 255 acres by 2021. It wasn’t a radical change in the city’s more than 15,000 acres of trees, but the bulk of it was in neighborhoods that couldn’t afford to lose it.
Neighborhoods in Seattle’s Council District 1, encompassing West Seattle and neighborhoods along the Duwamish, lost more than 3% of their trees from 2016 to 2021. Parks and residential areas recorded the greatest net losses, making up 78% of the total canopy loss.
Keeping them alive
Climate change has been a double whammy for tree management in Seattle.
Neighborhoods without trees are getting hotter. Trees that were once thriving have been seriously stressed by hotter, drier summers, said Patti Bakker, urban forestry adviser at Seattle’s Office of Sustainability and Environment. And newly planted trees need more care.
“We used to consider best practices to be a three year establishment period … [where] we intensively water trees to make sure that they become … sustainable on their own,” Bakker said. “And we’ve increased that to five years.”
It’s an especially hard life for Seattle’s street trees, Bakker said Tuesday. They have less space to grow because of sidewalks, streets and other paved areas, crunching on the soil volume needed for their roots. They’re forced to choke down stormwater runoff, carrying plenty of pollutants from tires and car grease.
Meanwhile, the city has been working to update its tree code. The mayor’s proposed legislation promises to protect 157,000 trees, expedite the permitting process to “address the housing crisis,” and prohibit the removal of heritage trees — those given special designation under the heritage tree program.
Missing from the mayor’s proposed tree legislation are trackable social and environmental justice goals, connections between the ordinance and affordable housing, city support for community-led tree planting and maintenance, the Urban Forestry Commission wrote last week.
The department that regulates trees on private property is the one that also serves real estate developers, said Seattle City Councilmember Alex Pedersen. “So just the organizational culture of the city government is not really set up well to think about the environmental benefits first.”
The council will reconvene on trees next Friday.