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Energy & Environment

Charlotte's Declining Tree Canopy Hides Years Of Loss In Historically Black Neighborhoods

Alexus Johnson looks at the backyard of her great-grandmother's home in Washinton Heights, where many of the trees are 80 years old.
Michael Falero
Alexus Johnson looks at the backyard of her great-grandmother's home in Washington Heights, where many of the trees are 80 years old.

Charlotte has been losing trees for years, leaving some neighborhoods with less shade than others. New data shows a different way of looking at which neighborhoods lack trees.

The spot where a mature tree used to stand on Booker Avenue in Washington Heights neighborhood.
Credit Michael Falero / WFAE
The spot where a mature tree used to stand on Booker Avenue in Washington Heights neighborhood.

Alexus Johnson walked along a residential street in Washington Heights. She’s the fifth generation of her family to live in this neighborhood, which makes up part of Charlotte’s Historic West End. She pointed out a circle of dirt near one of the houses. A massive tree used to stand here, she said, until its branches started falling on neighbors’ homes after storms.

The homeowner cut the tree down a couple of years ago. It took them three days to do it.

"You know, they say when you start, when you start taking things away, one thing, then everything else starts going away?" Johnson said. "That was one of the first things that was in our neighborhood! So it’s gone, what else is gonna go?"

Johnson also said gentrification in Washington Heights has led to all kinds of trees being lost, as new, larger homes replace older ones. Now that the massive tree was gone, she said the sun was intense in the windows of her grandmother’s house located right across the street. They’ve had to get blackout curtains. 

"Because the front of the house would be so hot and the back of the house would be so cool, because of that heat coming through those windows," Johnson said.

Washington Heights’ loss of trees has been happening for decades. On a recent day at 4:30 p.m., it was hot, because most of the trees Johnson walked past were barely taller than she was. Many were planted in the last 15 years. Mature trees were harder to find, more often in backyards. She showed the backyard of the house nearby, where her grandmother was born. It had several moss-covered trees, all planted in the 1940s.

"And a lot of the trees would divide homes from each other," Johnson said. "So that’s how you would know whose property belonged to who."

A recent study of Charlotte’s tree canopy was published by the University of Vermont and the nonprofit TreesCharlotte. It shows a widespread loss of trees in Charlotte. Between 2012-2018, the city lost a net 4% of its canopy, down to 45% coverage of the city. The study said residential development and trees cut down on private property were the main causes of tree loss. 

The city's tree canopy is mapped out, and the maps are broken down by neighborhood.  Look at the percentage of canopy each neighborhood has lost since 2012, and the wealthier, whiter neighborhoods in south Charlotte appeared to be leading the city’s tree loss.

View UNC Charlotte's GIS map of the 2012-2018 Tree Canopy study here.

Credit UNC Charlotte Center for Applied Geographic Information Science
Percentage of tree canopy loss for neighborhoods in the Historic West End (left) and south Charlotte (right). Darker shades represent more percentage loss.

But that doesn’t reflect the full history of Charlotte’s tree canopy. To understand the real experience of the canopy, we need to ask another question:

"Who can walk outside their door and have tree canopy, and who cannot?" asked Doug Shoemaker, the researcher at UNC Charlotte who created the maps.

"Do only people who live in Myers Park and Dilworth get to have nice trees, cooler environment, more quiet environments, possibly safer environments, or should everybody have access to those sorts of amenities?" Shoemaker said.

Shoemaker said historically Black areas of Charlotte may show less tree loss, but they had fewer trees to start with. So he recently developed another map trying to answer this question: how much tree coverage would a person see if they walked a quarter mile in a given part of Charlotte?

The new analysis, on the same map, shows residents would walk under less tree canopy in the Historic West End than neighborhoods like Plaza Midwood or Myers Park.

Credit UNC Charlotte Center for Applied Geographic Information Science
Perceived tree canopy within a quarter mile walk for neighborhoods in the Historic West End (left) and South Charlotte (right), 2018.

Shoemaker said this new layer of analysis better shows Charlotte’s level of tree equity -- how equal tree coverage is across the city.

There's also a number of health impacts that come with tree canopy in a neighborhood.

"Increasing green or green space anywhere is a very easy way to engineer better health," said Dr. Cheryl Courtlandt, a pediatrician and asthma specialist with Atrium Health Levine Children’s.

"Trees, in particular, can be helpful in being a catalyst for people to be outdoors more," Courtlandt said. "More exercise, less obesity. Better and cleaner air, calming environment of trees, some place to go and to meet. All of those things have been studied, and show beneficial impact."

All of Courtlandt’s patients were kids living in the Historic West End neighborhoods. She drew a direct link between the natural environment they grow up in, and the likelihood they would have chronic health problems, like asthma or obesity. Trees filter air pollution, which is one of their biggest health benefits.

Credit UNC Charlotte Center for Applied Geographic Information Science
Charlotte area percentage of tree canopy loss, 2012-2018 (left); Charlotte area by perceived tree canopy within a quarter mile walk, 2018 (right). Darker shades represent more canopy coverage.

A study released by the U.S. Forest Service this summer showed the benefits of increasing the tree canopy in Philadelphia, which has about half the tree coverage of Charlotte. It estimated that increasing Philadelphia’s canopy to meet its 30% canopy goal would lead to about 400 fewer premature deaths, including about 240 fewer deaths in poorer neighborhoods that have lower canopy.

Another study, recently highlighted by the New York Times, showed that previously “redlined” minority neighborhoods in many American cities during the 20th century now have less tree canopy, more paved surfaces, and overall higher temperatures, when compared to those cities’ wealthier and whiter neighborhoods.

Courtlandt said compared to other fixes that are important to improving health and environmental equity in Charlotte, trees were an easy solution.

"Many of our problems in our society are ones that we’ve taken 100 years to get here. It’s not gonna be a quick fix to eradicate them," Courtlandt said. "However, planting some trees, having open green spaces, may be something that we can do very quickly in the short term that may be extremely helpful."

For the long term, Charlotte city planners have a goal of growing a tree canopy that covers 50% of the city by 2050, known as "50 by 50." That means planting a lot of new trees.

The nonprofit TreesCharlotte has helped the city with that goal. A map on the organization's website shows the thousands of trees it has planted. South Charlotte, Plaza Midwood and NoDa are well-represented. North and west Charlotte are less represented.

Chuck Cole, Executive Director of TreesCharlotte, said the organization needs partners in neighborhoods before they can plant trees. He said the cost and knowledge it took to maintain trees over time could turn people off from planting them.

But then there’s the issue of maintaining the ones Charlotte already has. Erin Oliverio is the city’s Tree Canopy Program Manager. Maintenance is crucial for keeping the canopy growing, she said, and the city was working on new plans for how it maintains and plants trees itself.

"Pruning on trees, and look at better planting methods, and how do we make sure that we’re covering all of Charlotte, and making the planting fair for everyone," Oliverio said.

The city is working on a new Tree Canopy Action Plan this fall and said it wanted to hear from residents. City staff said they would focus on hearing from minority communities and neighborhoods.

And if Charlotte wants a healthy tree canopy everywhere, it will have to cover all of its neighborhoods.

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