Have you ever noticed that on hot summer days it’s cooler in Brookline than it is in Roxbury? The answer may be obvious to some; Brookline is blessed with a canopy of breezy leaves and tall shady oaks, whereas trees in Roxbury, as in other neighborhoods in the city, are fewer and farther between. Lack of trees in urban areas is one of the major contributors to “heat island effect,” a concept that’s been around since the early 19th century, aiming to explain why some parts of the city swelter and suffer while others don’t.
What happens to city residents who live in a heat island? Simply put, they face health concerns at a higher rate than other neighborhoods. Vulnerable community members, like the elderly and the immunocompromised, must brace themselves for heightened risks of heat-related maladies like dehydration, hyperthermia, and changes in blood pressure.
Additionally, without adequate tree coverage, heat island residents must also contend with heightened levels of air pollution, a greater risk of flooding, and increased rates of asthma. This information comes from David Meshoulam, co-founder and executive director of Speak for the Trees Boston (SFTT), an organization whose goal is “to improve the size and health of the urban tree canopy in Boston, with a focus on under-resourced and under-canopied neighborhoods,” according to their website.
“Trees are a critical component of building community health and resilience. Research has clearly shown that trees provide enormous benefit for local residents,” says Meshoulam. “They cool summer temperatures by shade and evapo-transpiration, which improves health and also reduces energy use…they improve mental health; they encourage people to exercise and be outside; they have been shown to reduce violence; they build a sense of community and belonging.”
Meshoulam and SFTT are both keenly aware of other differences between Brookline and Roxbury. Part of SFTT’s operations include a robust effort to map out “tree equity” within and around the city of Boston, with a keen awareness on the correlations between tree canopy and adequate public funding in wealthy white communities, and lack thereof in underserved Black and brown communities.
“This is a national issue, not just in Boston,” Meshoulam says. “Communities that received less resources 50 years ago are today facing increased environmental burdens, in large part due to things like fewer trees.”
By observing the different facets of SFTT’s Tree Equity Map, it’s clear to see the correlation between Black and brown neighborhoods and lack of tree cover. What’s more, this map, provided by Meshoulam by way of ArcGIS, shows a distinct lack of tree cover in neighborhoods subjected to “redlining” in the recent past.
Meshoulam admits that that, “many other cities are well ahead of Boston in planning for how to preserve, protect, and grow their urban forests,” adding that other urban areas around the country, “have well-developed Urban Forestry Plans that have analyzed the needs of certain neighborhoods, developed metrics and actions for the future, and have created new ordinances to protect trees on private land.”
“[A]ll cities deal with issues of tree equity,” he adds. “ I think these issues are shaped by history, social and political structures, geography and climate, and resources. Boston is not unique in this regard, just different in the types of challenges it faces.”
Redlining, an issue that continues to haunt Boston so long as there are bulldozers and construction crews in the streets, is not the only contributing factor to our city’s lack of tree equity. Another challenge is protecting what little tree cover actually exists in vulnerable neighborhoods.
In 2018, the city of Boston, in partnership with MassDOT and an independent planning firm, announced a proposal for rehabilitating Roxbury’s Melnea Cass Boulevard that included a plan to “replace trees in poor health.”
On the books since 2011, the plan to uproot trees was bolstered by a plan to plant many more, but experts and community members alike note that the finalized proposal, titled the Melnea Cass Road Safety and Rehabilitation project, slated the uprooting of over 120 mature, shade-giving trees, which would in turn damage the root system of the others. The replacement trees would, of course, be saplings–young trees that make little positive effect on the ecology of the area, especially with regards to shade, breeze, and animal habitation.
“Trees are an important space to encourage biodiversity,” Meshoulam says. “The right trees planted in the right places provide habitat for local wildlife. For example, birds rely on trees for shelter and for food, especially during migration. They also provide habitat and food for insects and pollinators.”
Why does the city want to cut down what some claim to be the only real tree cover in the neighborhood of Roxbury–a move that the Globe referred to as one of the largest tree removals “in recent city history”?
According to city officials, the impetus behind the Melnea Cass project is, nominally, road safety. The 2018 plan includes designs to widen roads and improve bike paths, as well as to update traffic equipment and redesign crosswalks. With pedestrian and cyclist safety tantamount, the planning committee initially enlisted the partnership of the Boston Cyclists Union, who summarily pulled out of the project once the tree-cutting came into public focus over the summer.
Becca Wolfson, executive director of the Cyclists Union, was quoted in an E&E News article from September 16th as saying:
“”The City of Boston cannot and should not say that they are doing this in the name of better bike facilities […] We are not willing to stand with the city and say this is a clear and present danger. If anything, the clear and present need is environmental protection for the residents of Roxbury.”
“It should be noted, the road does require updates,” Meshoulam observed. “But, I think that the city got overly ambitious and didn’t balance the transportation needs with green infrastructure preservation. Despite years of community activism, the city steamrolled the project through.”
Concerned Roxbury residents and others formed Friends of Melnea Cass Boulevard, a coalition intent on protecting the tree canopy that lines the central vein of Roxbury’s thoroughfare. Speak for the Trees counts itself among the street’s Friends, as well as the MA Climate Action Network, Mass Audubon, and the Cyclists Union, to name a few. Plans for the project halted on September 2nd after “pushback from the state attorney general’s office and activists”, and on September 14th, the Boston Herald announced that City Council President Kim Janey and Councilor/mayoral candidate Michelle Wu had joined Friends of Melnea Cass Boulevard in opposing the city’s project. The next day, Janey and Councilor Julia Mejia called for a hearing on the issue, which has yet to occur. [Ed. note: A previous version of this article stated that a meeting had taken place on 10/9, which was incorrect.]
“It is critical to ensure that the next plan does not compound the decades of redlining and structural racism that have left communities like Roxbury and the South End vulnerable to the inequities of urban planning/development,” read their hearing order, excerpted in the Globe.
To citizens and city councilors alike, the core issue behind the Melnea Cass project is not about the trees in and of themselves, but of who is allowed to reap their benefit.
Recall Brookline, its leafy oaks and climbing ivy. Now view it on SFTT’s Tree Equity Map, and you’ll see what homogenized income and whiteness can do in keeping the neighborhood’s trees firmly rooted in place. Not for nothing, but Brookline has some dangerous roads, too.
“We are, at the core, an environmental justice organization,” says Meshoulam.
“Although we focus on trees, our work is rooted in the value that all people deserve a clean and healthy environment and that local trees are critical to ensure that people have healthy spaces.”
In the wake of this conversation of environmental racism, tree equity, and withheld resources, Meshoulam is quick to offer ways for individuals to get involved in the fight to keep Melnea Cass Blvd’s root system safe from bulldozers:
“Our organization is always looking for volunteers,” says Meshoulam. “We have several areas where people can help…We are looking for people to help with outreach, tree inventory work, media, and so much more. As a new organization, we encourage people to find out more about us and pitch in in whatever way they can.”
SFTT’s website and volunteer form can be found here. Donations can be made here. Mr. Meshoulam also pointed out several other environmental justice organizations in Boston, including ACE (Alternatives for Community and Environment), NOAH, and Southwest Boston CDC.