July 13, 2023
From Seattle to Palm Beach, Florida, city leaders agree that urban areas need more trees to alleviate the effects of climate change. Leaders in many communities now consider trees to be critical infrastructure, providing shade, absorbing stormwater runoff, and filtering air pollution. The focus on urban forests has coincided with a growing recognition that low-income neighborhoods and communities of color often have far less tree cover — and suffer increased vulnerability to extreme heat as a result.
When Congress included $1.5 billion for urban forestry in the Inflation Reduction Act last year, the investment came after intensive lobbying from a group of six cities, known collectively as the Vanguard Cities Initiative, whose leaders made the case to federal policymakers that tree canopy could help mitigate climate change's effects.
Now those six cities — Albuquerque, Boulder, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Portland, Oregon — have helped to launch a series of learning and information-sharing programs to bring dozens more communities into the fold, in order to maximize the effectiveness of the soon-to-be-disbursed federal money.
Cities prepare for an influx of federal funds
In March, the group launched its first of three five-month programs, known as the Urban Nature-based Climate Solutions Accelerator, which will consist of more than a dozen training and collaboration sessions. With a huge boost in federal money on the way, the Vanguard Cities hope the accelerator will become a force multiplier, allowing city officials across the country to learn from one another and from experts on urban canopies, all trying to answer a critical question.
The initial accelerator program will focus on urban heat and how urban forestry can mitigate the health risks of a warming climate. "Heat kills more people than any other weather-related disaster, and it's something that's getting a lot worse," says Evan Mallen, senior analyst for Georgia Tech's Urban Climate Lab, who is serving as an instructor for the Accelerator program. "[This program] will help make sure this money is really spent in a way that is efficient, effective and equitable."
Sixteen cities will join the first program as full participants, bringing in representatives from urban forestry and public health departments, community groups and nonprofit partners to share strategies with one another. Dozens more communities and federal officials have signed up as observers. Subsequent programs will focus on issues such as storm and flooding risks and green infrastructure.
Conserving, restoring, and planting urban trees
In Austin, Texas, one of many communities with racial and socioeconomic disparities in tree coverage, representatives from several city departments will join the accelerator program. "We're projecting more extreme heat, more extreme rainfall events and more prolonged periods of extreme drought [due to climate change]," says Rohan Lilauwala, Austin's environmental program coordinator. "Those environmental hazards are disproportionately felt by low-income and communities of color, and one of the things we need to do is direct our tree planting, our land conservation and our ecosystem restoration efforts towards those communities."
The city of Chicago has committed to planting 15,000 trees annually for the next five years, but many surrounding communities are still working to build their urban forestry capacity, says Lydia Scott, director of the Chicago Region Trees Initiative, a partnership of organizations and agencies across 284 communities in the area.
"We want forestry to be at the table and this impact of green space to be at every level of cities' decision-making process," she says. "Hopefully, we'll see some great opportunities for us to replicate what's happening in other places and go at solutions collectively from a national perspective."
Building a green workforce
Another of the group's instructors is Julia Hillengas, co-founder and executive director of PowerCorpsPHL, a program in Philadelphia that provides job opportunities to young people in fields such as urban forestry and green infrastructure. She will be helping cities consider the challenges and opportunities of building the workforce needed to put the federal funding into action.
"There's a big question of timing — when funding hits and how fast people can get things off the ground," she says. "It's going to force this internal look of 'Do we have the talent? Are they ready to go?' Communities can really step up on the economic side of things in a way that includes great-paying jobs in an industry that's growing."
Leaders in Cleveland are also focused on building an urban forestry workforce: the Cleveland Tree Coalition, a group of more than 50 public, private and nonprofit partners, formed in 2015. It aims to grow the city's tree canopy coverage to 30 percent by 2040, up from the current 18 percent mark.
"Trees are a long game," says Samira Malone, who was named the coalition's first director last year. "It's going to take some time for us to see and feel the benefits of planting, but this is also an opportunity to intentionally, strategically and restoratively diversify the field of green jobs."