By Meg Anderson and Sean McMinn
Annie Haigler steps out of her home in Louisville, Ky., pulling a handkerchief out of her pocket to dab sweat off her forehead. She enjoys sitting on her porch, especially to watch the sunrise. She has always been a morning person.
But as the day progresses, the heat can be unbearable for her. On summer days like this, when highs reach into the 90s, the lack of trees in her neighborhood is hard for Haigler to ignore.
“That’s what I’m accustomed to trees doing: They bring comfort. You don’t notice it, you don’t think about it. But they bring comfort to you,” she says.
The tree cover in her neighborhood, Park DuValle, is about half the city average. As one of the lower-income areas of Louisville, it’s in line with a citywide trend: Wealthier areas of the city have up to twice as many trees as do poorer areas.
Trees can play a huge role in the health of people living in cities, but across the country, cities are losing millions of trees year after year. And many poor urban neighborhoods — often home to a city’s most vulnerable — are starting at a disadvantage.
“If we show you a map of tree canopy in virtually any city in America, we’re also showing you a map of income,” says Jad Daley, president and CEO of the nonprofit American Forests. “And in many cases we’re showing you a map of race and ethnicity.”
That lack of tree cover can make a neighborhood hotter, and a joint investigation by NPR and the University of Maryland’s Howard Center for Investigative Journalism found just that: Low-income areas in dozens of major U.S. cities are more likely to be hotter than their wealthier counterparts, and those areas are disproportionately communities of color.
“If you live in an area in cities that is seeing more extreme heat days, but you don’t have tree cover to cool down your neighborhood, that can literally be a life or death issue,” says Daley. “The folks who are least likely to have air conditioning to weather heat waves, the folks who are most likely to have preexisting health conditions that put them at greater risk from those heat waves, aren’t getting the benefits of trees.”
A study by the Georgia Institute of Technology found Louisville to be getting hotter faster than any of the other 50 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, compared with the rural areas around them. One reason cities tend to be hotter? Fewer trees.