While cities are increasingly investing in urban green spaces and street trees for the benefits they provide, a new study suggests these efforts could paradoxically worsen inequality. According to research by Betsy Breyer and Hannah Mohr, published in Local Environment, trees and greenspaces’ ecosystem services and benefits are unevenly distributed across cities and communities. Instead, they can lead to issues like gentrification that exacerbate socioeconomic disparities.
The study examined thirty assessments of urban tree cover from U.S. cities, which are technical documents that quantify and assign economic value to trees and the benefits they provide, known as ecosystem services. The researchers found these assessments frequently overlooked issues of equity in the distribution of green spaces and trees across cities. They prioritized using economic value to justify management decisions rather than considering who receives the benefits or involving local communities.
According to the researchers, current approaches to quantifying and valuing ecosystem services can contribute to injustice by empowering narrow technocratic decision-making that benefits higher-income or privileged groups. For example, focusing only on maximizing total economic value across a city can justify investing in wealthier neighbourhoods with higher property values, while lower-income areas remain neglected. Similarly, notions like choosing the ‘right tree for the right place’ based on economic value and risk management can take priority over civic engagement and input on community needs or preferences.
However, the researchers argue data and quantification are not inherently problematic if used selectively and in conjunction with principles of justice and equity. In their article, Breyer and Mohr write:
The power effects that result from technocratic practices become apparent when attending to processes of marginalization, for example, by examining how certain actors or issues are rendered invisible. We showed that UTC [urban tree canopy] assessment omitted gentrification and displacement even as it celebrated the property market dynamics that bring it about. The subject of UTC assessment was typically a single-family residential homeowner. Renters at risk of displacement were invisible. We suggest that this theme of invisible displacement connects urban forestry, which focuses primarily on the Global North, with longstanding critical forestry research out of the Global South. The latter has developed sophisticated critiques of market-oriented sustainability and data-driven management in forestry, showing the processes by which networks of expertise realize forest value through the displacement of subsistence communities (Li 2007; Peluso 1993). The invisibility of displacement, whether through logging or through green gentrification, could form a focal point to understanding the way market-oriented sustainability practices recast contentious political decisions as technical problems of data and methods.Breyer & Mohr 2023
They call for urban forest assessments and management practices that balance technocratic expertise with community involvement and shift the focus to the relationships between people and trees, not just economic value. Distributing resources and benefits equitably, targeting investments in underserved communities, and empowering civic participation in decision-making can help correct injustice.
Overall, the study highlights the need to consider not just the total value of ecosystem services but who receives them and how management decisions are made. Integrating principles of justice and equity into the planning and governance of urban green spaces will help create sustainable, livable cities for all. Breyer and Mohr conclude:
The moment is ripe to consider what alternate possibilities might emerge from assessment practices that consider not just trees themselves (with all the issues of scale, valuation, etc.) but also trees in relation to people. Significant effort has gone into urban tree canopy detection and measurement. However, knowing where the trees are is insufficient to address longstanding equity deficits in urban forestry practices. Just sustainabilities require not only a transformation of the physical layout of urban space, but also a careful review of the governance structures like UTC assessment that shape how that transformation unfolds.Breyer & Mohr 2023
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Breyer, B. and Mohr, H. (2023) “Right tree, right place for whom? Environmental justice and practices of urban forest assessment,” Local Environment, pp. 1–15. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/13549839.2023.2184784.