Redlining trees

A take-off on the article on CapRadio, Summer Days Often Feel Much Hotter If You Live In One Of California’s Historically Redlined Neighborhoods, published/broadcast May 26.

image from @RandolWhite tweet

The lower temperatures along the river corridor are of course expected. And so is the pattern, almost universally seen here, that lower income locations have higher temperatures. One could speculate that these areas never had as many trees, but I don’t think that is the explanation. It has to do with sidewalks, and city neglect.

I walk a lot, and to the degree possible, walk throughout the city. What I see in the lower income neighborhoods is a decline in trees. Many have been removed, and many of the ones remaining are declining in health. I do not think it is because people who live there don’t care about trees, quite the opposite. It is because there are more renters in lower income neighborhoods, with landlords who do not care much about trees, or other things. For those who do own their homes, it is a struggle to pay the bills and take care of trees.

When these neighborhoods were built, they probably had just as many trees as any of the leafy neighborhoods in midtown or east Sacramento or Arden Park. But these neighborhoods are old enough that many of the trees are dying out (maybe for lack of care, more probably because they were not the right tree for the context), and not being replaced. The homeowners or renters don’t have the money to replace them, and the landlords don’t care.

So why are there still trees other places? Because the design of streets in many higher income neighborhoods feature detached sidewalks, with a buffer in between the street and the sidewalk. This is the standard design for livability in all but intensive retail areas, and adds significant safety and comfort for walkers. But in the second ring and beyond suburbs, most streets are either without sidewalks or have attached sidewalks, with no buffers. So the trees were in people’s yards, not in the buffer. When they die or are taken out, the city has no responsibility. When there are buffers, the city replaces the trees. Yes, they are incredible slow about doing so, but it does eventually happen. And it happens for the most obvious of reasons, that richer (white) people get what they ask for in this city.

The city also repairs sidewalks when the buffer tree roots systems begin to crack and heave the sidewalk (many buffers were too small for the trees planted in them). Not with alacrity, but they do it. When a yard tree cracks and heaves a sidewalk, the city sends the owner a notice to repair.

tree in sidewalk buffer, with city repair
a typical lower income neighborhood, no buffer, no city maintenance
no buffer, rolled curb, no yard trees (though there were at one time)

A person posted in reply to the CapRadio article that the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District did a Urban Heat Island Project to assess the issue and solutions. Good for the air district, and good for the study, but what about action? What about the city? What is the city doing, proactively, to get trees back into low income neighborhoods?

Tree redling also relates to the issue of sidewalk responsibility. Sidewalks are a part of the city’s transportation system, and are legally and morally the responsibility of the city to maintain. The idea that we provide for cars and car drivers, while leaving walkers to the vagaries of private property owners is an idea whose time has passed. In fact, I think that the city should establish a program of repairing and installing sidewalks before ANY road repairs are done. It will take many years to undo the damage of our cars-first transportation system and funding, but the time to start is now. Where sufficient public right of way exists, and sidewalks are in need of significant repair, existing sidewalks should be replaced by detached sidewalks, with buffers and street trees.

Sacramento redlining map

Thanks for the website Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America, I have better copies of the Sacramento redlining map, which was produced in 1937 by the Federal Home Loan Bank Board and the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC). These were government sanctioned zonings meant to guide banks to only loan to certain kinds of people in certain areas. Specifically, higher income white people.Though the official endorsement of the federal government eventually ended, the practice continued into the 1970s, and is with us still today. The best book on it is The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein, which I highly recommend.

I had seen this map before, most likely from the posts of Bill Burg, but had not seen a high quality version, and had never found the GIS data. In 1937, Sacramento was a pretty small city, not going south past Land Park or north past Del Paso Heights, so the maps only cover a tiny part of what is today Sacramento. But as the city grew into other areas, the same practice redlining continued.

The first map below is the ArcGIS version, the second a scan of the original 1937 map.

Sacramento HOLC redlining map 1937 (click for pdf)
redlining map scan
original map, scanned (click for high resolution)