David Figueroa, 54, was working on his Toyota minivan this week under the shade of a small-leafed lime tree. His wife, Luz, sat contentedly on their rowhouse porch watching their children play.
The tree, one of only two on his side of the block, was small when Figueroa first moved to Emerald Street in Kensington in 2000. He appreciates the shade it now casts, but he’d rather see it gone.
“You can take the tree,” Figueroa said. “The stuff that falls off it is sticky and gets all over the car. It attracts bugs at night, so we can’t sit outside. The top of it is dying, and it’s ripping up the sidewalk.”
Yet Figueroa, who lives in one of Philly’s least-shady neighborhoods, wishes they had more trees. Just better ones.
Trees lessen the urban heat island effect, which can mean a temperature difference of 15 to 20 degrees between, say, Kensington and the much leafier Chestnut Hill neighborhood on a sweltering day. The city is facing its fifth heat wave of the season this week.
As the world gets warmer and Philadelphia heats up along with it, city officials say they see the most suffering in the poorest neighborhoods, with majorities of Black and brown residents. A new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change links recent weather extremes like droughts and heat waves that are helping fuel fires out west to human-caused global warming and warns of more.
Philadelphia’s response includes expanding the tree canopy to 30% in all neighborhoods. Though trees can also boost quality of life and property values, adding so many is a daunting task where thousands of rowhouses, businesses, narrow sidewalks, concrete, and asphalt conspire against it. Those neighborhoods took shape as developers, employers, and officials made decisions more than 100 years ago on who would ultimately get shade in coming decades, and leaving a redlining legacy that is especially obvious on the hottest days.
The Inquirer analyzed the amount of tree cover within 47 city zip codes and found that residential areas with the least tree canopy generally fall within economically stressed neighborhoods.
According to the Inquirer analysis, income, not necessarily race, correlates most closely with how leafy a neighborhood appears from above. There are fewer trees where there is more poverty, more renters, and higher population density.
The differences can be stark: Chestnut Hill has 60% tree-canopy cover, the highest in the city, and a median income of $89,400; Kensington has 7% tree-canopy cover and a median income of $31,500.
The pattern follows for residential communities closest to parks having up to 83% canopy and higher incomes. The Mount Airy, Roxborough, and Wissahickon neighborhoods — all surrounding Wissahickon Valley Park — boast 40% or more canopy.
By contrast, Kensington, Port Richmond, North Philadelphia, Fishtown, Oxford Circle, Mayfair, Ludlow, Tacony, and Wissinoming all have 10% tree canopy or less.
There are exceptions. The gentrified neighborhoods of Fishtown and Northern Liberties, for instance, have 7% or less canopy.
One section of Port Richmond, with mostly white residents, has 7% canopy. There, Cheryl Yucalevich, 50, successfully requested the city plant a cherry tree on her all-concrete sidewalk.
“I missed having a shade tree,” said Yucalevich, a lifelong resident. “Everything is so grim in the city. You need trees. I miss the trees that used to be everywhere around here.”
Overall, though, the wealth-tree correlation is strong. “Equity is a huge issue in the tree canopy in the city,” said Erica Smith Fichman, Philadelphia’s community forestry manager with TreePhilly, a Parks and Recreation program to grow the canopy. “It is not fairly distributed across the city, and people notice. They can tell wealthier people have more trees.”
The city has hired Hinge Collective, a landscape architecture firm, to design a 10-year plan, a draft of which will be available in the fall, to reverse years of canopy decline. It has surveyed residents, sent tree ambassadors into neighborhoods, and held community meetings, said Alexa Bosse, a landscape architect and principal in Hinge Collective.
“We wanted people representing their neighborhoods so we could understand the specific issues the neighborhoods face with trees — both positively and negatively,” Bosse said.
Interviews with a range of residents show a love-hate relationship with trees. Some want more trees for their shade and beauty. Some want fewer because of damage to power lines and sidewalks. Others simply don’t care.
O. Williams wants fewer trees. The North Philadelphia resident, who has lived at Eighth and Huntingdon Streets since 1960, said unmaintained trees cause issues with neighbors. She said trucks rumble down her street knocking off limbs. A tree across the street has been dead for two years and neighbors fear it will fall. She planted a small, fenced garden in place of a tree that once stood in front of her home after the tree’s roots jutted into her basement.
“Trees are more trouble than they’re worth,” Williams said. “There are already too many.”
Overall, 16,884 acres of the city are covered by tree canopy, or one-fifth of all land. So how did that canopy become inequitable?
“That’s a really complicated question,” Smith Fichman said.
Tree inequity was already taking root by the late 19th and early 20th centuries as the city’s park system was being established, experts say. Developers organized leafy communities with bigger yards and single-family homes around the parks, attracting wealthier residents.
Meanwhile, industrialists clustered factories on the Delaware River and saw no reason to plan for parks or trees in Kensington, Harrowgate, Fishtown, and Tacony. The result: high-density housing for mill workers that attracted Irish, German, and other immigrants, as well as Black residents fleeing the South.
During the Great Depression the federal government created the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) to encourage housing loans, and assigned letter grades to neighborhoods to guide mortgage lenders. Neighborhoods with the lowest grade were marked in red on maps — hence the term redlining.
Neighborhoods surrounding industry were often zoned red. One area of North Philadelphia, for example, was redlined in 1937, noting that half the people were immigrants. It also noted a 40% “infiltration” of Black residents, according to a city presentation.
As manufacturing collapsed after World War II, white residents fled to the city’s edge or its suburbs, with many veterans taking advantage of the GI Bill that provided low-interest mortgages and college tuition. But racist policies pushed by Southerners in Congress set up roadblocks for Blacks seeking to use the bill.
Deed restrictions in many areas also blocked Black residents from moving to the suburbs.
Some neighborhoods in Philly flipped from 95% white to 95% Black within two decades.
Though redlining was outlawed decades ago, the impact remained, with new generations of Latino and other immigrants moving into the same white-flight neighborhoods.
Rise of parks
Lara Roman, a research ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service in Philadelphia, has studied the city’s tree cover. She said that reasons for the inequitable canopy are nuanced but that placement of parks was a driver.
“There are parts of the city that lack parks, and lack yards,” Roman said. “So right off the bat, regardless of who is there now, and who lived there in the past, they just don’t have the space for trees.”
She cites Somerton in the Far Northeast, at the edge of Bucks County, as an example of a community built to mimic the suburbs with single-family homes, front lawns, and yards — all close to Pennypack Park and Benjamin Rush State Park, and all drawing whites.
“The parks were constructed mostly … by city elites trying to protect the watershed, the water supply, and provide recreation opportunities,” Roman said. “They weren’t necessarily designed for the lower classes.”
Kevin Loughran, a Temple University assistant professor studying urbanization and race, has a book coming out in November on the development of parks and their impact on cities.
“Once the street grid is in place, it’s very difficult to change,” Loughran said, “especially once certain kinds of housing stock or certain kinds of industrial uses are put in place. When you think of Fishtown, you think of very narrow one-way streets and narrow sidewalks. You don’t have a ton of room.”
Loughran noted that some of the rare urban parks built in the United States in recent years are in wealthier areas, such as the High Line in Manhattan.
“That’s not solving the equity issue,” Loughran said.
Loughran said there is vacant land in Philly but turning it into parks would require unpopular eminent domain takings. The tree canopy is growing in some poorer areas of the city, he said, but with “weed trees” sprouting in vacant lots, not desirable trees.
Alex Hernandez, 57, who lives on Sterner Street in West Kensington, said his block was once full of trees, but they were torn out for roadwork and never replaced.
“There used to be trees at every other house,” Hernandez said. “But those that were left have all dwindled. They are sickly and the city hasn’t maintained them at all.”
Brandon “Johnny” Brian, a mason working this week in Kensington, said that given soaring overdose deaths and gun violence, it’s hard for many residents to care about trees.
The Fishtown resident said he’s been on job sites while killings have taken place nearby. As he spoke, a group of drug users gathered in a lot just two blocks away.
“I’m all for the environment,” Brian said. “But it doesn’t mean anything if kids are dying.”
Graphics editor John Duchneskie contributed to this article.
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.