In Cleveland, as in other cities, a move for "tree equity" is bringing more trees to low-income neighborhoods that often lack them. It also helps neighborhoods stay cooler as the planet heats up.



As temperatures rise around the globe with more frequent heat waves, one old-fashioned thing can help keep city streets cooler and the air cleaner - trees. Urban trees aren't shared equally. In many cities, they're way more common in wealthier neighborhoods. So some cities have adopted a new cause - tree equity. NPR's Dan Charles has the story.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: On the corner of East 123rd Street and Imperial Avenue in Cleveland, there's a community garden with freshly planted raspberries and a little apple tree and Shirley Bell-Wheeler watching over it.

Well, this is lovely.

SHIRLEY BELL-WHEELER: Thank you. I'm happy you like it. Nothing is bloomed or pretty-looking yet. But...

CHARLES: There's an asparagus patch over here.

BELL-WHEELER: Those are purple asparagus (laughter).


BELL-WHEELER: We were really excited about those.

CHARLES: Bell-Wheeler's a part-time gardener. She's a teacher's aide at a local school. Green spaces like this, the garden and the parks - they bring healing, she says.

BELL-WHEELER: We're dealing with the basic needs of what's best for our bodies physically and also changing the mood or the morale of what's going on in this neighborhood emotionally. We have had a lot of tragedies on this street in particular.

CHARLES: About 15 years ago, a serial murderer haunted this neighborhood. He left the bodies of his victims in a house on the next block.

BELL-WHEELER: It's very heavy. And it's very - I don't want to say political. It makes you think about social activism because of the fact that if this would have happened in a different neighborhood, it wouldn't have been so many women killed because somebody would have cared more.

CHARLES: 90% of the people here are Black. They're mostly low-income. The abandoned houses that used to line that block have been cleared away. The land's being turned into a memorial park. A line of 11 young trees curves through green grass. Bell-Wheeler says the beauty makes her feel better.

BELL-WHEELER: It was like we matter. Somebody cares about us. It's a statement of value.

CHARLES: She says this neighborhood, Mount Pleasant, should have more parks and trees.

BELL-WHEELER: It makes you feel like you're in a better place. Like, everybody wants to be at the park. Who doesn't like being at a park and breathe fresh air?

CHARLES: A mile east of here lies the town of Shaker Heights, wealthier than Mount Pleasant, with more white people and full of towering, leafy trees. Jacquie Gillon, who works with an environmental group in Cleveland called the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, says that contrast raises a question.

JACQUIE GILLON: The fact that Shaker maintained its leafiness but Mount Pleasant didn't - what does that say to you? There's no equity.

CHARLES: You can see that pattern in many American cities, she says.

GILLON: When you hit the Black community, it's not green anymore, or it's not as green.

CHARLES: Sandra Albro, who's director of community partnerships at Cleveland's arboretum, Holden Forests and Gardens, says there are historical reasons for this. Decades ago, the city government didn't spend as much on infrastructure, including trees, in neighborhoods where more Black people lived.

SANDRA ALBRO: There was an intentional decision to not plant and maintain tree canopy.

CHARLES: And now neighborhoods with less of that canopy get fewer of the benefits that trees can provide - not just beauty, also better health.

ALBRO: Stress reduction and, you know, easier environments for our heart and lungs, such as cleaner air and cooler temperatures.

CHARLES: That will be increasingly important to deal with heat waves in a warming climate. So Cleveland has adopted trees as part of the city's official plan to deal with climate change and equity at the same time. A coalition of city agencies, nonprofit groups and corporations is pledging to plant hundreds of thousands of new trees. They're still far from accomplishing that, though. And you can't just plant a tree and walk away. Indigo Bishop, a community organizer now working with St. Luke's Foundation, discovered this when she worked with people at one public housing complex.

INDIGO BISHOP: I was just blown away by the fact that people were like, tear out the trees. Tear them out.

CHARLES: The trees were dropping branches onto cars. The roots were breaking up sidewalks. Bishop says the lesson is, reforesting a city takes planning and continued care. In Cleveland, it's going to take a lot more time and money. There's one giant oak in the city that symbolizes some of Cleveland's historical pain and its hopes. It's tucked away behind a high school in the old Brooklyn neighborhood. Jesse Owens, the track star, planted it. It was one of four saplings he'd received at the 1936 Olympics in Germany - one for each gold medal. But Jeffrey Verespej, executive director of the Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation, says Owens didn't go to this school or even live nearby. He just trained on its track.

JEFFREY VERESPEJ: Old Brooklyn, at that time, was an exclusively white neighborhood and the wealthiest part of the city. So it had the newest school and the fanciest track. So the track star trained in Old Brooklyn, even though he was from the east side of Cleveland.

CHARLES: Tree experts at Holden Forests and Gardens cut a bud from this old oak and grew a new tree from it. This spring, they carried the little sapling back to the east side of Cleveland for a ceremonial planting in a park. Tyrone Owens, a distant cousin of the track star, was there to help.

TYRONE OWENS: Time passes on. You'd rather not go back and try to figure out what they were trying to do back in those days. You just probably want to go forward. And this is progress right here.

CHARLES: They expect to plant three more clones of the Jesse Owens oak in Cleveland. Those trees will spread their limbs in all parts of the city.

Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.