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Louisville awarded $12M to improve tree equity in underserved areas

City trees planted in downtown Louisville at 4th Street and Guthrie.
Ryan Van Velzer
City trees planted in downtown Louisville at 4th Street and Guthrie.

It can be more than 10 degrees hotter in parts of Louisville that lack grass and trees. This week Louisville announced a $12 million federal grant to combat urban heat in underserved areas and improve the city’s tree canopy.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced more than $1 billion to help improve urban tree canopies in communities around the country last week. Louisville received Kentucky's largest award, and among the largest in the country, equal to the city of San Francisco.

City officials say the funding will go toward assessing and maintaining the tree canopy in underserved areas, improving workforce development and planting 5,000 new trees over five years.

The city’s own 2016 study found that Louisville needs as many as 450,000 new trees to help cool city streets, improve air quality and bolster public health amid climate change and the city’s rapidly growing urban heat.

Planting 5,000 new trees won’t do much to put a dent in the city’s heat island, but Louisville Metro arborist Jacquelyn Eklund said the grant funding will help maintain and improve tree canopy in the city’s underserved neighborhoods.

“It’s really easy to get people to pay for tree-planting,” Eklund said. “What’s not easy is getting people to pay for the other areas of need.”

Most neighborhoods in Louisville have a “severely aging tree population,” and it’s residents who end up footing the bill when they need help, Eklund said. That’s because the city requires residents to maintain trees in public rights-of-way adjacent to their homes.

“The number one problem I hear when we are talking about tree canopy is that people don’t have money to take care of trees as they are aging and dying,” she said.

Eklund said the grant will help cover the cost of maintenance in these communities as well as create an inventory to know exactly how much canopy there is in each neighborhood.

Louisville’s environmental justice communities

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service selected Louisville among 385 grant proposals across the country. The funding specifically targets what the Biden Administration is calling “Justice40” communities where the administration has committed a minimum of 40% of funding for certain programs. Louisville Metro’s Division of Forestry plans to use the money to implement its “Equitable Forest Initiative” over the next five years.

As much as 22% of Jefferson County qualifies for the funding. Eklund said the city’s primarily looking at communities in south central and west Louisville with the greatest need including Shawnee, Russell, Parkland, Portland, California, Southside, Beechmont and Iroquois neighborhoods.

Louisville has previously identified these communities as having the highest heat risk. Many of them are home to more sensitive populations up against hotter urban heat islands with fewer resources to adapt.

In addition to the tree planting and maintenance, the grant will also fund a workforce development initiative to employ people who live in those communities to work with the city’s forestry crews to improve the tree canopy in their own communities.

“People are only eligible if they live in those areas,” Eklund said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded another $2 million to improve urban tree canopies in other parts of the state including Lexington and Newport. The grants will focus on projects to cool city streets, improve air quality and bolster public health.

Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.

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