Mindful of the negative impacts that environmental racism has had in historically marginalized neighborhoods, this week the Durham City Council unanimously approved a plan to amend an ordinance to allow more trees on city streets.

The decision to plant more trees in the city reached fruition during the council’s Monday meeting.

Their decisive 7-0 vote follows a 2016 Duke University study, “Durham’s Urban Forest: Living in the Shade of Injustice,” which examined the ongoing and deleterious impact that racist federal policies from 80 years ago have had on neighborhoods without adequate tree canopy.

As previously reported in the INDY, it was in 1937 when Durham began planting trees in its right-of-ways: the strips of city-owned land between sidewalks and city streets.

Wealthier, whiter Durham neighborhoods like Trinity Park, Duke Park, and Watts-Hillandale have a city-owned canopy cover of more than 50 percent, meaning more than half of the neighborhood is covered by trees. Between 2007 and 2014, the city planted at least 150 new trees in each of those neighborhoods.

But in predominantly Black neighborhoods like Cleveland-Holloway, Edgemont, and Golden Belt in East Durham, the canopy cover hovers at just around 10 percent, according to the Duke analysis.

Worse, those neighborhoods received 50 trees or fewer between 2007 and 2014.

Trees are good for cities, and their residents. They reduce air pollution, mitigate stormwater runoff, cool homes naturally, and generally improve the health of the ecosystem. Studies have found that trees reduce stress, brain fatigue, and have been linked to lower levels of obesity and higher property values.

“It matters because tree coverings [don’t] cure ills, but it sure does make them better,” said Katie Rose Levin, the executive director of Trees Durham, which collaborated on the amended ordinance with city planners and other community organizations, including Keep Durham Beautiful, following the Duke University analysis. “It reduces asthma and heart attacks. It does reduce crime. A study in Chicago shows that crime was less likely to happen where there was tree covering. It increases math scores. It reduces ADHD.”

Jillian Johnson, the city’s mayor pro tem, said that she was “excited” and after reading the Duke analysis and became “really interested in fixing the problem.” 

But she warned that a vote for more trees, particularly in poorer communities, came with “a couple of trade-offs” that may hurt residents the city is ultimately trying to help.

“The first [thing] I see is that the saving of land for street trees actually means there’s less land to build housing,” Johnson said in Monday’s meeting.

Johnson added that the decision to reserve land for more trees could make it harder to build more affordable housing, meaning fewer homes that are less affordable.

 “The other trade-off in the context of a consumer market for housing, is that anything you do to make the housing more desirable raises the price of the housing,” she said.

Johnson pointed to the possibility of higher housing prices in areas where city officials choose to add “a green infrastructure,” of trees, bike trails, and similar projects, creating adverse negative outcomes in neighborhoods that have already endured long-term disinvestment.

Those neighborhoods “certainly do deserve more investment,” Johnson said. Her concern is that “when they receive that investment, it can sometimes act as a factor in displacement.”

Johnson urged her colleagues to “continue to invest in affordability to mitigate” any potential negative impacts  “these kinds of policies have on our residents.”

Council member DeDreana Freeman said going forward, it’s important for the council’s conversations about “shared prosperity” to be in sync with the group’s conversations about affordable housing.

“The cost isn’t going down, and we want to make sure our folks have access to capital, to the resources,” she said, “so that they will be able to afford their future here in Durham.”

The amended ordinance is in line with concerns about equity that Mayor Steve Schewel has repeatedly shared. During his State of the City address in early March, the mayor proposed a “Green New Durham” to address the city’s climate crisis that was sending more residents to the hospital with heatstroke and dehydration caused in part by inadequate tree canopies in their communities.

“Like most good things we do, this is not without cost,” he said before the council vote. “But in my mind, this is clearly worth the cost.”

Independently from the amended ordinance, the mayor said city and local environmental leaders in recent years have doubled—from 750 to 1,500—the number of trees planted in local neighborhoods.

“Our tree planting had been through a racial equity lens,” he said, “and I’m really proud of that.”

Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.