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LISTEN: Louisville’s tree canopy reflects the legacy of redlining

 Lush trees line the sidewalks of Shelby Park in Louisville.
Danielle Kaye
Trees, which help keep areas cool in the heat of the summer, are not present in all neighborhoods in Louisville.

This week marks the start of summer – and with it, hot weather, underscoring the importance of trees. Cindi Sullivan of TreesLouisville discussed how the geography of trees across the city highlights racial and socioeconomic inequities.

Louisville has one of the fastest-growing urban heat islands in the United States, meaning the city gets significantly hotter than its surrounding regions. And climate change is exacerbating health complications from extreme heat in urban areas.

As summer approaches, LPM News’ Danielle Kaye spoke with Cindi Sullivan, executive director of the nonprofit TreesLouisville, about how the geography of Louiville’s tree canopy – which is crucial to reducing urban heat – exacerbates racial and socioeconomic inequities.

Your organization, TreesLouisville, works to expand Louisville’s tree canopy. Planting more trees is one key way to reduce urban heat. So, how do you decide where in the city to focus your efforts?

CINDI SULLIVAN: We have two reports. We know where the lowest canopy areas are, and that’s where we do the vast majority of our work. Not surprisingly, those areas are west, southwest, south central Louisville – areas that have been historically marginalized. We took the original 1930s redlining map, and what we know today is that the redlined areas have 22% canopy, versus the greenlined areas – those Grade A areas – have 48% canopy. That’s a huge disparity.

I understand TreesLouisville has a tree rebate program, through which homeowners can get $30 back for purchasing a tree. But how do you expect Louisvillians in lower-income neighborhoods – which are also the neighborhoods most in need of trees – too afford all the maintenance costs to actually keep that tree alive and healthy?

The federal government, and state and local governments, are finally catching on to the fact that you can’t just plant trees; you have to plant and maintain them. We’re hoping to be able to get some federal money very soon to be able to prune mature trees.

So at this point in time, if somebody in Louisville wants to plant a tree on their private property, maybe they can’t afford all those costs to maintain the tree. What resources can they turn to?

We have a program called NeighborWoods. And if you live in a certain ZIP code, we will plant that tree for you, mulch it, stake it.

Should the cost burden fall on Metro Government to fund these kinds of initiatives rather than nonprofits like TreesLouisville?

Public rights of way should be under the purview of our government, and private properties should be the responsibility of private property owners. We work on public property and private properties, so I think that that relationship is really very important.

Metro Council adopted a Tree Ordinance to preserve the city’s trees. But how much of an impact are these public policy efforts having at this point?

I think the impact is huge. We were able to work with Louisville Metro Government planning and design, and the administration, to be able to change some of the wording and language in the land development code. We were able to increase preservation and increase tree canopy.

At the beginning of our conversation, we were talking about redlining. And it’s clear that Louisville tree canopy – or lack thereof – raises crucial concerns about racial inequities in the city. So I’m wondering, how do you see your role in the broader movement for racial justice in the city?

In some of our more marginalized neighborhoods, it’s not a coincidence that those are also areas that need shade, need the protection that a robust tree canopy can provide. I think the other thing that’s really important that we maybe don’t focus on enough: we’ve got lots and lots of science and environmental benefits, but there’s also the social aspects. If you’re more comfortable in your neighborhood, if you’ve got shade on your sidewalk and you can take a walk, if you’ve got shade on your porch you’ll sit out there more often and talk to your neighbors. All of those things increase social cohesion, and those are things that we are working toward all the time.

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