Everyone deserves to have street trees in their neighborhood, no matter their race, ethnicity, or access to wealth. However, Portland’s history of racist zoning and land use policies have created a deeply inequitable urban landscape. To this day, wealthier, whiter neighborhoods tend to have more street trees than historically redlined neighborhoods, where there are more BIPOC (Black & Indigenous people & People of Color) and people living on low-incomes.

The City of Portland needs to grapple with its history of inequitable land use planning, and to address how its current policies allow street tree and infrastructure inequities to persist. For example, even though street trees are public infrastructure, the cost of their maintenance currently falls on adjacent landowners – creating disincentives for low-income Portlanders to have more trees planted in their neighborhoods. This means that Portland’s tree canopy is steadily becoming less equitable, as well as shrinking overall.

This past summer, the 350PDX Forest Defense Team helped organize Heat Week, an event to commemorate lives lost to the 2021 heat dome and prepare for the climate crisis. During the heat dome, the hottest corner of Lents (a historically redlined neighborhood) peaked at 125, over 13 degrees hotter than shadier, whiter areas like Laurelhurst. We organized a bike ride during the event where we attached thermometers to our bikes to record these temp differences.

Street trees not only provide life-shaving shade during extreme heat events, but they are key to maintaining Portland’s ecological biodiversity and critical to human health year-round. According to a recent study by the US Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, every street tree – especially older trees – helps reduce mortality rates for people living nearby. “Older, larger trees were thus associated with greater reductions in mortality. So, while planting new trees is great, this finding suggests preserving large trees that already exist is even more important for public health (as it also is for the well-being of wildlife).” – Read the full article here.

Join 350PDX’s Forest Defense Team & our partners in the fight for shade equity!

We’ve already made progress, getting the City to dedicate $40 million from the Portland Clean Energy Fund (PCEF) towards growing Portland’s tree canopy where it’s needed the most – over the next 5 years. This is definitely worth celebrating, but we still need to make sure the City listens to community voices when deciding how to allocate that $40 million. Yesterday, we joined 18 organizations in asking Commissioner Rubio to create an inclusive process for public and private stakeholders that ensures this new shade equity program is grounded in equitable partnerships and advances PCEF’s climate justice goals. Join us in calling on the City to support robust community engagement!

Even with this new investment in Portland’s urban forest, we have more goals in the fight for shade equity.

We will keep calling on the City to:

  • Take on the cost of street tree maintenance so the burden doesn’t fall on residents
  • Commit thorough, long-term investments to build a Portland where everyone has access to street trees
  • Center historically disenfranchised community voices — particularly low-income and BIPOC communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis — in determining how to use this new funding to best grow a more equitable urban forest, as well as empower communities to be stewards of that forest.

The climate crisis will make extreme heat events more common and more intense. We need to take action now to make sure everyone has access to life-saving shade and all the benefits that street trees provide.

For the forests,

Brenna Bell, 350PDX Climate Forest Manager

P.S. First Namecan you support shade equity by making a donation today? We’ve made strides in this campaign, but we need to keep up our movement building and coalition work in 2023 to win a more equitable, community-driven Portland.