New Jersey communities of color grapple with lack of trees, environmental inequity

Environmental groups plan to use state funding to plant trees in environmentally overburdened neighborhoods in places like Camden, Newark, and Trenton.

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A group of people in yellow reflective vests pose for a photo outdoors.

Power Corps Camden members stand at the site of a new tree planting initiative at Rev. Evers Park. (Tennyson Donyéa/WHYY News)

Jay Watson says you can tell the quality of a neighborhood just by counting the trees.

“Clean green streets really have a major impact on how people feel about their community and their lives,” Watson said.

The Ewing native is co-executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation,  a nonprofit organization that recently received more than $1.3 million in state grant funding to plant trees and cultivate green spaces in environmentally overburdened communities (EOCs) in Trenton.

A man poses for the camera. A tree, buildings, and traffic lights are visible behind him.
New Jersey Conservation Foundation co-Executive Director Jay Watson stands on the corner of East State Street and South Clinton Avenue near downtown Trenton. (Tennyson Donyéa/WHYY News)

The Natural Climate Solutions grant program is funded by Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and New Jersey Forest Service No Net Loss Compensatory Reforestation Program. Watson said his organization will collaborate with the city to plant hundreds of oak, red maple, ginkgo, and sycamore trees at a corridor along East State Street and nearby parks.

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According to experts, tree canopies have a myriad of physical and mental health benefits. Canopies also reduce urban heat by providing shade and absorbing harmful greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide. Watson argues that neighborhoods lacking canopies tend to experience more quality-of-life-related issues including a disproportionate amount of crime.

Data shows that a 10% increase in tree canopies on the street reduces crime by 12%,” Watson said.

Low-income neighborhoods have fewer trees than affluent ones

People who live in low-income communities of color are more likely to reside in neighborhoods with few to no trees compared to people who live in more affluent, neighboring towns.

That’s the case in parts of New Jersey’s capital city, which according to data provided by the state Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP), has a tree canopy cover of about 7%.

Nearby towns Princeton and Lawrence have a canopy cover of 54% and 36%, respectively, according to NJDEP.

Camden has less than 3% tree canopy cover compared to neighboring towns Audubon (12%) and Collingswood (7%).

Newark, the state’s largest city and a significant cultural hub, has a canopy cover of about 4%, while Montclair and Livingston have 39% and 42% canopy cover.

Neighborhoods in Trenton, Camden, and Newark also scored poorly on American Forests’ “Tree Equity Score” map.

In a joint statement, New Jersey Forest Service Assistant Regional Forester Brian McDonald and Forester Levon Bigelow caution that canopy cover percentage doesn’t paint a full picture of canopy resources and benefits:

“A canopy as a single metric doesn’t consider other important factors. How the canopy is distributed throughout a town is also important, as well as the surrounding infrastructure. Is that canopy in residential areas, is it near schools or hospitals, is it on the side of highways, or in parks? Were the trees planted using best management practices and with optimal site design and compatibility in mind? Are the associated benefits equitable to all residents in the community…Trees provide several ecosystem services, including urban heat reduction, flood and stormwater mitigation, air pollution mitigation, and even human health improvement, given proper planning and management, as well as aesthetic benefits. It is important to not only understand the overall percentage of canopy cover but often more importantly, how those trees are distributed throughout an area.” 

Studies suggest a lack of trees is one of the enduring legacies of racist banking practices like redlining.

Planting more trees in Camden

Camden is overburdened by environmental toxins emitted by an abundance of nearby polluting facilities. The state classifies several areas in South Jersey’s largest city as EOCs.

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The Murphy Administration also awarded the Trust For Public Land more than $1 million in grant funding to plant trees in Camden, including hundreds of trees at Reverend Evers Park in Morgan Village.

Trust For Public Land Camden program director Justin Dennis hopes the project will inspire residents to learn more about caring for the environment.

“We want to make sure that as this process is happening, there are strong opportunities for input, where residents can see what trees will look like as juveniles, as they mature, the ways that the trees look in fall and spring, the ways that they flower, have opportunities to ask questions about allergies, pollutant load, and asthma,” Dennis said.

A man stands next to a tree in an open field.
Justin Dennis, Camden Program Director for the Trust For Public Land (TPL), at the site of the TPL’s tree planting initiative at Rev. Evers Park. (Tennyson Donyéa/WHYY News)

“There are many compounding factors that create a scenario in which a resident might not have had the luxury of being able to participate in something like this. And as you go around the city, you’ll see the areas where trees have not been planted in the past. And you can see where trees have been planted in the last few years, and the types of care that go into those communities as a result of those actions is undeniably visible,” he said.

Camden residents and environmental justice advocates welcome the canopy projects.

“I hope to see better and cleaner parks,” said Ayanah Lindsey, a cohort member with Power Corps Camden.

Power Corps is a six-month program in which community members work with city partners to tackle local environmental challenges.

“I hope to see people taking care of our trees and [schools educating people], so they can learn about planting trees,” Lindsey said.

A group of people in yellow reflective vests talk together in a group on a pathway outdoors.
Power Corps Camden members stand at the site of a new tree planting initiative at Rev. Evers Park. (Tennyson Donyéa/WHYY News)

Lifelong tree enthusiast and co-founder of We Live Here Art Collective Adriana Amador-Chacon said creating more green spaces is a step toward healing environmentally overburdened communities. She also asserts that it will require more work to make the city whole.

“Yes, we want to go outside more, want to interact with each other, and have places where we can sit down and just enjoy our lives. But it’s also about what we are putting inside our bodies, including the water and the air, and food that we have access to,” Amador-Chacon said.

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