Rob Gould is a senior communication strategist and a member of the George Mason University Health and Climate Solutions team.

No one who has walked a city sidewalk on a scorching hot day doesn’t pray for a tree-lined street. On this level, the value of planting trees in response to the warming temperatures we are experiencing is elemental and visceral. Beyond providing protection from heat, trees absorb the carbon dioxide that drives global warming, and tree planting becomes the quintessential response for climate change resilience and mitigation.

And planting trees is simple, right?

But read the introduction of the proposal submitted by Friends of Trees to evaluate their tree-planting program in the Jade District of Portland, Oregon:

“This project will evaluate a 15-year community tree planting program in the Portland metro region that has planted more than 750,000 trees and shrubs and engaged thousands of people. The evaluation will focus not only on the health and climate benefits from the trees but also the resilience created by how different communities engaged in the process of planting and caring for trees. This evaluation will employ a community-based participatory research approach to examine both the physical and social dimensions of the tree planting program across neighborhoods with different mixes of income, race and ethnicity, tree canopy, and other important aspects of equity.”

A Complex Challenge

What comes across in the proposal and when meeting the team working in Portland is their determination to respond to the complex threats to social and physical health posed by extreme heat.

The Friends of Trees project team cited the extensive literature documenting that people who are marginalized—communities of color, people in poverty, people who are immigrants—live in physical environments that make them more vulnerable to the health harms of extreme heat. They also point to the evidence that isolation and lack of social connections contribute to this increased risk of poorer health—both because these individuals have less access to information during a heat event and because they don’t see the benefits from greening efforts. In short, the greening programs that were in place before Friends of Trees started were systematically ignoring communities of color and communities in poverty.

While the Friends of Trees team’s effort to address greening through a health equity lens began 15 years ago, the benefits of this work have only grown as climate change increases threats to health.

In the Pacific Northwest, every year since 2012 has been hotter than the prior one; Portland has broken 23 warm temperature records since 2016. Record high temperatures paired with tinder-dry conditions have led to extensive wildfires that increased particulate matter in the air. This harms human respiratory health, and reduces the capacity of building HVAC systems and increases energy demand.

A Focus on Community Engagement

Engaging the community in true collaboration has been one of the hallmark strategies for Friends of Trees. One of those partners is the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO), a leading community organization in East Portland’s Jade District. APANO’s values reflect an appreciation for the importance of community health and equity. Duncan Hwang, APANO’s associate director, is quick to point to how tree-planting and the decisions about where and what to plant in the Jade District, are community-driven. This program doesn’t happen in a vacuum–he can point to how it aligns with a nearly-completed (and first-ever) community center and a community garden placed near the District’s elementary school. As the group that has led much of the development work in this neighborhood, APANO makes sure that tree planting fits into the larger portrait of an engaged community—and that is why it has succeeded.

The Evaluation Plan

As community engagement and community organization partnership are the hallmarks of the Friends of Trees program, it will also be integral to its approach to the evaluation. A research team from Portland State University and Oregon Health and Sciences University will employ a community-based participatory research methodology in order to execute “a collaborative evaluation that assesses impacts of greening efforts to date, and builds rapport and community capacity to sustain and assess continued/future efforts–recognizing resident knowledge and expertise as fundamental.”

Taken together, the Friends of Trees program and the evaluation hold great promise in helping Portland – and many similar communities – understand the best ways people can come together and improve health, equity and resilience in response to the warming of our world.

Suggested citation: Gould, Rob. “Friends of Trees: Rooted in Community and Health Equity.” Health and Climate Solutions Blog: George Mason University. November 13th, 2019