VDH: ‘Tree equity’ is a health issue, especially during summer months

Author: Ryan Nadeau
Source: Visit Site
VDH: ‘Tree equity’ is a health issue, especially during summer months

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) is taking a look at equitable access to shade outdoors, or “tree equity,” and how this directly impacts health.

According to data collected by the department, many communities in Richmond and Henrico County — especially those in poorer communities of color — have particularly low tree equity scores, meaning those who live there are at a higher risk of the health issues extreme heat can cause.

Notably, lacking shade directly contributes to a phenomenon called “the urban heat island effect.” According to the VDH, the urban heat island effect means areas with lots of dark pavement and low tree cover are prone to seeing higher temperatures.

In addition to potentially causing heat exhaustion and heat stroke, higher temperatures are also known to impact chronic health conditions, according to a June 12 blog post from the department.

So how poor is tree equity locally?

The Tree Equity Explorer tool provided by the VDH provides a tree equity score based on census block groups. It also notes how significantly extreme heat is believed to impact particular groups in that area — such as children and seniors, people of color and the unemployed, among others — and visualizes this rate as a “priority index.”

“Communities in Richmond and Henrico that historically experienced housing discrimination such as redlining in the 1930s see far hotter temperatures than neighborhoods elsewhere in the city today,” the blog post reads.

Many people of color call Richmond and Henrico County home, with 57% and 49% of those populations being nonwhite, respectively. According to the VDH’s data, those in poverty make up a significant portion of these populations, as well — that being 39% and 22%, respectively.

Looking at Richmond’s tree equity on the whole, 71 of the 190 block groups in the city have a tree equity score under 79. On average, Richmond communities have about 23.51% tree canopy coverage — not even halfway to the tree coverage goal of 50%.

Tree equity map of Richmond. (Photo courtesy of the Virginia Department of Health.)

The lowest tree equity score in the city of Richmond is 40, in the area of Gilpin Court. Extreme heat is believed to highly impact people of color and those in poverty in this area, scoring a 95% priority index for both. Children and seniors scored 56% and unemployment scored 32%.

In Henrico County, only 8 of its 239 block groups have a tree equity score of under 79, with the county’s average tree canopy coverage coming in at 43.41%. However, people of color and those in poverty see less of this tree cover in their communities.

Tree equity map of Henrico County. (Photo courtesy of the Virginia Department of Health.)

The community just south of Forest Lawn Cemetary off of Laburnum Avenue has the lowest tree equity in Henrico County, scoring 45 with a 100% priority index for people of color. Those in poverty scored 93% and children and seniors scored 67%.

So what does this mean and what can we do?

“The inequitable distribution of tree cover across Richmond and Henrico deepens health inequities already in place in our communities,” the blog post reads.

These specific communities experiencing the brunt of extreme heat due to low tree equity create an urban heat island effect “positive feedback loop,” according to the VDH.

“While many people can cool off at home, folks struggling with housing insecurity or expensive energy bills may need to look for public places to cool off, like libraries or public pools,” the blog post reads. “For residents who do not own a car, walking or riding the bus might be their only option, but they may be exposed to extreme temperatures while waiting at an unsheltered bus stop.”

Actions are being taken on the city and county level to address tree equity in Richmond and Henrico, according to the VDH.

The City of Richmond is working on an Urban Forestry Master Plan. According to the VDH, residents should keep an eye out for upcoming opportunities to keep cool this summer.

In Henrico County, reforestation efforts are underway at county parks, according to the VDH. Organizations like Southside ReLeaf and Groundwork RVA are also working to improve tree coverage in the county.