Creating More Equitable Urban Forests by Understanding and Responding to Historical Trauma
By Christine E. Carmichael, Ph.D., Founder and Principal, Fair Forests Consulting, LLC
For the last couple of decades, research documenting inequitable urban forest coverage by race and income in the United States has grown. Far from being an issue relegated to one city or region in the U.S., it is now clear that whiter and wealthier neighborhoods across the country have more tree canopy coverage than neighborhoods with predominately non-white residents and those with lower median income.  
This finding of lower tree canopy coverage in U.S. neighborhoods with more non-white and lower income residents is coupled with another troubling finding: Historical racist policies and behaviors in urban areas of the United States created the current reality of inequitable urban forests. A study published earlier this year, for instance, linked hotter neighborhoods with fewer trees to historical “redlining”—a racist housing policy in which mortgage lenders assessed risk for loans based on one’s race. This policy of “redlining” based on race arose in part from The Great Migration, in which over 6 million African Americans migrated from the South to the Northeast, Midwest, and Western U.S. to escape racism and seek job opportunities in industry between 1910 and 1970.
As African Americans in the early-mid 1900s migrated to larger cities away from the South, they found similarly entrenched systems of oppression and conflict based on race—leading to another migratory trend in the U.S. called “white flight,” in which wealthier, white residents in cities fled to the suburbs and reinvested their money in the economy and environment outside of cities. Following “white flight” to the suburbs, threats to urban forests increased—from Dutch elm disease to Emerald ash borer. However, the financial resources and tax base to adequately manage these threats had been relocated to wealthier, whiter neighborhoods in the suburbs.
In the intervening decades, particularly from the 1980s onward, tree-planting initiatives via non-profit organizations grew in popularity across the U.S. as a means to address this urban forest decline and inequity. Such tree-planting initiatives have focused primarily on the ecological aspect of urban forestry—selecting species of trees to plant that could thrive in urban settings with a dense human footprint and extensive networks of built infrastructure. This approach to reforestation has paid little attention to the underlying social and political forces that led to the urban forest inequities in the first place.  In other words, tree-planting initiatives in recent decades have focused largely on addressing the symptoms of racism (i.e. lower tree canopy coverage in non-white neighborhoods), rather than the causes of this race-based inequity (i.e. systemic, racist institutions that provide greater access to financial resources and decision-making power about the urban environment to predominately white individuals and groups).
This evidence demonstrates that urban forest inequities in the U.S. are the result of historical trauma. While trauma is defined as a “deeply disturbing or distressing experience,” the U.S. Administration for Children and Families defines historical trauma as “intergenerational trauma experienced by a specific cultural group that has a history of being systematically oppressed.” The end of slavery in the U.S. did not end systematic oppression of Black Americans, it simply marked a different chapter in the search for equality among generations of Black Americans—a search which continues through fights for environmental justice and equitable urban forests today.
The U.S. Administration for Children and Families goes on to state, “Current lifespan trauma, superimposed upon a traumatic ancestral past creates additional adversity.” Furthermore, “Human services providers working with members of underserved cultural groups can help by gaining a fuller understanding of clients’ historical and community context.” This same logic applies to urban and community forestry practitioners working in communities marginalized on the basis of race and income, as I learned during my dissertation research in Detroit, Michigan from 2013-2017.
I grew up in Mason, Michigan, which is a predominately white, middle class suburb of Lansing, Michigan, surrounded by beautiful, well-maintained street trees. I did not realize this was a privileged experience until I began my PhD in Forestry at Michigan State University in 2013. My PhD advisor approached me with what I thought at the time was a perplexing issue: A non-profit tree-planting organization in Detroit, Michigan was struggling to plant street trees due to a large number of “no-tree requests” submitted by Detroit residents. My first reaction was, “Who wouldn’t want a tree?” My experience up to this point had engrained in me that beneficial experiences with trees were inevitable, rather than a result of one’s birth in a particular place and social structure.
I spent the next four years immersed in field research in Detroit, conducting interviews with residents, city officials, and the non-profit organization’s staff, board members, and volunteers. I collected data while participating in tree-planting events, community meetings and events, organizational meetings, fundraising events, and any other events that could shed light on the historical, political, and community context of this tree-planting initiative.
I found that the organization’s approach to “community engagement” left little to no room to understand or integrate knowledge of historical trauma experienced by residents into the process of planting and caring for trees—creating a roadblock to gaining residents’ trust and participation in the tree-planting program.  For example, some staff members acknowledged but downplayed the importance of residents’ historical trauma and how the tree-planting program could contribute to it by not allowing residents to be involved in determining goals of tree-planting, species to plant, or follow-up maintenance protocols and responsibilities. As this staff member said, “… this wouldn’t be necessarily be an enduring long-term negative impact, but when community engagement is not done thoroughly or effectively, people may feel like the tree that was planted in front of their house was something else that was done to them, instead of for them.”
A board member for the organization went on to say that the organization was “Just constantly educating people about why what we’re doing is important and about what they give up by refusing a tree that we’re offering … if they don’t know what they’re missing, they’re never had those benefits, all they see is the negatives …”
Unacknowledged and unresolved historical trauma was in fact the key factor driving “no-tree requests” among Detroit residents involved in the study across several neighborhoods, and this issue could not be resolved by simply “educating residents” about the benefits of trees. As one resident who submitted a no-tree request said, “You know I love trees actually, it makes things beautiful and it makes shade. There’s no problem with trees. The problem is … they have to be maintained and in our neighborhood they’re not being maintained … I tried to get the City to trim trees almost 15 years and they never came out.”
These experiences of neglect were not unique to tree-planting, as another resident explained regarding work by a utility company that installed new meters in the neighborhood and “half did the job” by not filling holes and hiring landscapers that did not repair damage. This resident said, “This is what happens when people come in to the neighborhood to ‘do good.’ They ‘half do it’ or don’t do the whole job.”
Highlighting the importance of outsiders understanding residents’ experiences when they come to the neighborhood to “do good,” a woman who submitted a “no-tree request” said to me, “You know what, I really appreciate you today because that shows that someone is listening and someone is trying to find out what’s really going on in our thoughts, the way we feel, and I just really appreciate you … and maybe next time they can do a survey and ask us, if they would like us to have the trees.”
As this research demonstrates, planting trees in historically marginalized neighborhoods without first seeking to acknowledge, understand, and repair historical trauma experienced by residents contributes to a system of oppression that undermines the ability of urban and community forestry initiatives to achieve fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all residents, regardless of their race or income. When engaging with residents who have experienced generations of oppression and discrimination based on race, urban and community forestry practitioners—especially those who are not from the neighborhoods they serve—need to view tree-planting as the social and cultural phenomenon that it is—not just an ecological problem with strictly ecological solutions.
A first step to enacting equitable urban and community forestry is to acknowledge the ways in which dominant cultural and social experiences with trees guides—and limits—perspectives on the goals we should strive for when planting trees in cities, as well as the appropriate ways to go about achieving those goals. Urban forestry in the United States is traditionally a field of mostly white men, and a growing number of white women.   This demographic reality comes with limited viewpoints that require intentional dialogue with non-white residents about their experiences, values, needs, and concerns regarding the urban forest in order to chart an equitable path forward for urban forests and the diverse communities they serve.
There are many ways to advance this endeavor. I have partnered with the Arbor Day Foundation to create an environmental justice assessment survey for their Alliance for Community Trees (ACT) members, which will help to ascertain the level of proficiency that local tree-planting groups across the U.S. bring to their work to create urban forest equity. Based on the results of the assessment, I will engage ACT members in a series of interactive webinars with activities to promote self-reflection on the narratives, knowledge, and values that guide their urban forestry activities, as well as ways to more equitably and ethically engage with residents in communities to create and maintain a healthy urban forest.
What is clear from the existing evidence is that creating equitable urban forests will require a sustained and intentional effort among diverse organizations and communities to fully reckon with racist institutions and the legacies they inflict upon urban forests and communities, so that a fair and inclusive reality becomes achievable.