Current street tree communities reflect race-based housing policy and modern attempts to remedy environmental injustice

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Burghardt, Karin T., Avolio, Meghan L., Locke, Dexter H., Grove, J. Morgan, Sonti, Nancy F., and Swan, Christopher M.. 2023. “ Current Street Tree Communities Reflect Race-Based Housing Policy and Modern Attempts to Remedy Environmental Injustice.” Ecology 104(2): e3881.


Humans promote and inhibit other species on the urban landscape, shaping biodiversity patterns. Institutional racism may underlie the distribution of urban species by creating disproportionate resources in space and time. Here, we examine whether present-day street tree occupancy, diversity, and composition in Baltimore, MD, USA, neighborhoods reflect their 1937 classification into grades of loan risk—from most desirable (A = green) to least desirable (D = “redlined”)—using racially discriminatory criteria. We find that neighborhoods that were redlined have consistently lower street tree α-diversity and are nine times less likely to have large (old) trees occupying a viable planting site. Simultaneously, redlined neighborhoods were locations of recent tree planting activities, with a high occupancy rate of small (young) trees. However, the community composition of these young trees exhibited lower species turnover and reordering across neighborhoods compared to those in higher grades, due to heavy reliance on a single tree species. Overall, while the negative effects of redlining remain detectable in present-day street tree communities, there are clear signs of recent investment. A strategy of planting diverse tree cohorts paired with investments in site rehabilitation and maintenance may be necessary if cities wish to overcome ecological feedbacks associated with legacies of environmental injustice.