The Texas Tree Foundation claims that they can improve the quality of life in Dallas with their nonprofit tree planting programs. Trees can reduce the hot temperatures Dallas experiences, they can improve air quality, and beautify the area. However, these free tree programs have strict rules that require care of the trees that have costs that are not covered by the program. The geographical areas of Dallas that have the lowest quality of life are also the poorest, and this is an issue for lower income families because they often do not own their own homes.
These lower income areas are also predominantly Black and Hispanic. For the low income families that do own their yards, they may not have the time or money for the watering, mulching, and the payment of the tree replacement if it dies within the first two years. While the Texas Tree Foundation claims that trees can reduce crime, increase spending, and improve property values, the low income areas are not able to benefit from the programs as much as middle to upper class families can.
“Imagine it is a typical summer day in the city of Dallas, and you go for a walk. It”s 110 degrees and too hot to stand on the sidewalk.
[Trees blowing in the wind]
Ahead, a row of trees lines your path and relief from the heat is instant as you stand in their shade.”
Hello, my name is Braedyn McBroom, and this is my geopolitics podcast: “Why Free Tree Programs in Dallas Aren’t Helping Everyone.” The aforementioned quote was from the Texas Tree Foundation Dallas Urban Forest 2021 Master Plan.
The Texas Tree Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides education and free trees, claims that they can improve the quality of life in Dallas through their programs, projects, and partnerships that increase tree cover.
By planting trees, the Texas Tree Foundation is trying to secure clean air and cooler, comfortable temperatures, therefore reducing the urban heat island effect. According to Oke’s “Energetic Basis of the Urban Heat Island,” 1982, the urban heat island is defined as an urban area that is warmer than the rural areas around it.
The focus of the claim that the Texas Tree Foundation will improve the quality of life in Dallas is centered on the idea that the city is very hot. Dallas is not near an ocean, so it stays dryer than some of the other big cities in the United States. From 2000 to 2022, the mean high temperature in the city of Dallas has been 103 in June and 104 degrees Fahrenheit in July, based on the Dallas-Fort Worth National Weather Service office observations. Dallas can experience temperatures over 100 for multiple days in a row, and the pavement temperatures stay even hotter.
According to the 2022 report of impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability from the International Panel of Climate Change, or the IPCC, heat waves are becoming more common with global warming, and this stresses these already warm urban areas. This can be especially dangerous because the population trends have shown that people are moving out of rural areas and into big urban centers, putting more people at risk. Another risk pointed out was that the performance of air conditioners decreases with higher outdoor temperatures.
By increasing trees in Dallas, the Texas Tree Foundation can increase absorption of carbon dioxide through the trees’ photosynthesis processes. According to a 2020 journal article by Carola Helletsgruber, carbon dioxide is one of the biggest drivers of global warming because it traps the energy from the sun’s radiation in the atmosphere, and trees can increase human comfort by intaking this carbon dioxide. Lowering the carbon dioxide in Dallas’ environment can lower air and surface temperatures. Trees also produce oxygen during photosynthesis, and increasing oxygen production improves the quality of air Dallas breathes.
According to the master plan created by the Texas Tree Foundation, increasing tree cover can improve human health by reducing risk of heat related illnesses, make urban areas more livable, lower electricity bills, and increase property values.
The Texas Tree Foundation’s 990 form, a form that is required for all tax-exempt organizations, provided the organization’s mission, which is to focus its efforts in the communities in the north central Texas area.
These efforts include preserving and beautifying parks and public green spaces, beautifying public streets, and educating the public on the importance of the urban forest. The master plan they put out in 2021, however, focused on engaging the entire Dallas community, including the suburbs around it like Arlington, Plano, and Lancaster.
Through the organization’s efforts to educate and expand trees in Dallas, they hope to improve the overall quality of life in Dallas. Its partnerships include organizations like Branch Out Dallas, an organization that provides free trees to the public, Citizen Forester, a program that teaches volunteers how to care for trees, and a free six-month course focusing on arboricultural topics.
The Texas Tree Foundation has many free tree planting programs. In a guide for neighborhood organizations and community groups, several of these programs were described, like the Planet Green Neighborhood Association. For this program, to be eligible for free trees, a person must:
- Complete the plot form
- Have the tree planted correctly, meaning the beautification committee provides a tree planting service and mulch for a nominal fee.
- Water the trees deeply once or twice per week during the months of April through October, and bi-weekly during the months of November through March until the trees are established.
- Mulch the trees with a two inch layer at the time of planting and every spring and fall thereafter for the duration of the maintenance period.
- Fertilize if signs of nutrient deficiency appear.
Replace the tree, at your expense, if it dies within the first two years
This brings up several issues. For one, the claim suggests that these free trees and educational programs will help all of Dallas, but there can be issues with environments that are not private residential or owned by the city of Dallas. For example, families that live in apartment buildings or rented homes may not be able to plant new trees in the grassy areas around them.
This is concerning because, according to a study by Sagris and Sepp published in 2017, results show that areas of lower real estate and apartment buildings tended to be most affected by urban heat islands. The asphalt, concrete surfaces, and tar-covered roofs can all contribute to hotter temperatures.
This brings up another issue: human systems. While increasing tree cover can objectively improve the quality of life by reducing temperatures and improving air quality, the issue is, who is and is not benefiting?
To benefit from a free tree that the Texas Tree Foundation provides, a person must have the jurisdiction to dig in their own yard, meaning they likely have to own their home, and they may have to pay to have the tree planted, watered multiple times a week, mulch the tree two times a year, purchase fertilizer for the tree if needed, and replace the tree if it dies within the first two years of planting.
Looking at Dallas spatially, I will try to find where in the city who is and isn’t benefiting from these free trees.
According to data from the Best Neighborhoods website and the US Census Bureau, the best quality neighborhoods are in the north central Dallas area, co-located with an area of predominantly white residents. This “quality” metric was based on crime rate, quality of life, household income level, and medium home value. Eastern and western Dallas were mostly Hispanic and Latino, and southern Dallas was predominantly Black. These parts of Dallas had the lowest quality of neighborhoods, meaning they had the highest crime rate, the lowest quality of life, and the lowest income and home value values.
The areas that were determined to have the lowest quality of life were in the areas where income was the lowest. For those families in these areas, many of them likely do not own the land they live on. For the families that are able to own their land, they may not have extra funds laying around to pay for the tree care. Even for these lower-class families who can afford to plant the tree, they may not have the time to do so.
For example, my mom was a single middle-class parent, and we owned our home. Our garden was hardly ever touched, and the mulch that was there when we moved in was likely the same mulch we had when we moved out 15 years later. This doesn’t mean that my mother didn’t care about how the garden looked, but she was extremely busy taking care of me by herself. For the free time she did have, she often did laundry, made food, or spent time with me. There were even times where she worked another job so she could pay for my dance. For this reason, she likely would not benefit from a free tree because this would just make her busy life even busier.
The point is, the families who lived in these “worst” neighborhoods in southern, eastern, and western Dallas may have been less likely to benefit from a free tree program, considering their financial statuses. These areas were also likely more vulnerable to the heat caused by the urban heat island effect, according to a 2021 study by Hsu et al. Specifically, Hsu found that people of color and people who lived under the poverty line were more at risk to this heat.
While these poor areas are the most vulnerable to the heat created within the city of Dallas, they are also least capable of benefiting from any program that involves planting trees near their homes. The Texas Tree Foundation wants to improve the quality of life for all of Dallas, but the areas with the worst quality of life conditions are the least likely to benefit from a free tree program.
Even more interesting is a graphic that was included in the 2021 master plan that shows the change of tree cover from 2008 to 2016. The part of Dallas that was considered to have the best neighborhoods was also shown to have a 10% increase in tree cover. The southwest part of Dallas saw a nearly 10% decrease during this time. The remainder of Dallas had a more neutral change.
If I learned anything from this graphic, it’s that the priority of this nonprofit organization is to make the nicest parts of Dallas even nicer. In fact, in the master plan they even talked about how increasing tree cover was found to increase shopper spending and consumerism.
They also stated that in the southern part of Dallas their main job was to maintain the trees that were already there, rather than planting new ones. While reducing temperatures and improving air quality is a good thing, using this business as an opportunity to bring more people and businesses into the nice neighborhoods of Dallas may have been another motivation.
While I do think that urban planning and reducing temperatures is important to make city life healthier, I think it’s also important to realize when programs like these aren’t benefiting minority groups.
The neighborhoods that were defined as the worst based on the quality of life are not able to improve their quality of life as much as the best neighborhoods can. The families that are exposed to more heat than others due to the urban heat island effect should be the families that are being helped the most.
It is one thing to have your local city officials carefully plan out their budgets to increase the trees on the medians or in commercial areas, but it’s another to be able to wake up and say I want to plant a tree in my yard today, and have the means to do it.
City planting takes a lot of time, and waiting for city leaders to plant trees takes the power from the residents to improve their own communities.
[Trees blowing in the wind]
Thank you so much for listening. The sound effects for the podcast, Why Free Tree Programs in Dallas Aren’t Helping Everyone, used “Sound Car Passing, Multi, A. wave” by InspectorJ, licensed under CC BY 4.0, and “Aspen Tree in Strong Wind” by Justkiddink, licensed under CC BY 4.0.
Best Neighborhoods. n.d. “The Best Neighborhoods in Dallas, TX by Home Value.” Accessed November 13, 2022. https://bestneighborhood.org/best-neighborhoods-dallas-tx/.
“Dallas/Fort Worth Climatology.” National Weather Service. Accessed November 20th, 2022. https://www.weather.gov/wrh/Climate?wfo=fwd.
Dodman, D., and Coauthors, 2022: Cities, settlements and key infrastructure in: climate change 2022: impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Sixth Assessment Report of the IPCC, 907–1040, https://doi:10.1017/9781009325844.008..
Erwin, Philip, and Jessie Farris. 2022. “Guide for Neighborhood Organizations and Community Groups.” Accessed November 13, 2022. https://dallascityhall.com/departments/sustainabledevelopment/buildinginspection/DCH_documents/pdf/Landscape_and_Tree_Manual/BI_City_of_Dallas_Urban_Reforestation_Program.pdf.
Helletsgruber, Carola, Sten Gillner, Agnes Gulyas, Robert R. Junker, Eszter Tanacs, and Angela Hof. 2020. “Identifying Tree Traits for Cooling Urban Heat Islands-A Cross-City Empirical Analysis.” Forests 11 (10): 1064. https://doi.org/10.3390/f11101064
Hsu, Angel, Glenn Sheriff, Tirthankar Chakraborty, and Diego Manya. 2021. “Disproportionate Exposure to Urban Heat Island Intensity across Major US Cities.” Nature Communications 12(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-22799-5
Oke, T R. 1982. “The Energetic Basis of the Urban Heat Island.” Royal Meteorological Society (108): 1–24. https://doi.org/10.1002/qj.49710845502
O’Lear, Shannon. 2018. Environmental Geopolitics. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.
Sagris, and M. Sepp. 2017. “Landsat-8 TIRS Data for Assessing Urban Heat Island Effect and Its Impact on Human Health.” IEEE Geoscience and Remote Sensing Letters 14 12): 2385–2389. https://doi.org/10.1109/LGRS.2017.2765703.
Texas Tree Foundation. 2021. “Dallas Urban Forest Master Plan 2021.” Accessed November 13, 2022. https://dallascityhall.com/projects/forestry/DCH%20Documents/City%20of%20Dallas% 202021%20Urban%20Forest%20Master%20Plan.pdf.
Texas Tree Foundation. (2019). Return Of Organization Exempt From Income Tax [Form 990]. https://www.guidestar.org/profile/75-1886520
United States Census Bureau. n.d. “U.S. Census Bureau Quickfacts: Dallas City, Texas.” Accessed November 13, 2022. https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/dallascitytexas.