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A Fight for Urban Trees: Wealthier Neighborhoods Leafier

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By Lynda V. Mapes and Justin Mayor

urban_trees(MCT)—The benefits of trees—from their grace and beauty to their gifts of cool, clean air and stress relief—are well-known and documented in study after study. Yet as the city grows, it is struggling to hold onto its trees, especially in poorer areas.

Seattle’s wealthiest neighborhoods are also its leafiest, a Seattle Times analysis shows.

On a recent hot summer day, brothers Stanley and Kenneth Mason were eating cherry pie under the cover of enormous big-leaf maples at their house in the Rainier Valley.

“We have the best spot on the lot,” Kenneth Mason says. “We love our trees. When we are up here, it is quiet and peaceful. I love the shade and I know they are providing clean oxygen for me to breathe. They keep my air fresh.”

They are among the lucky ones in their neighborhood, where big trees are scarce—and continue to fall to the saw.

A look at median household income in the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data, together with a map of the city’s tree canopy by the city of Seattle, shows lower-income neighborhoods generally have the fewest trees.

Seattle recently was deemed the fastest-growing big city in the U.S. in 2014, according to a census report. Redevelopment is the primary reason trees are cut down in Seattle. Also in the mix are a confusing matrix of city regulations, and underpowered enforcement to protect trees.

The city has been working to reverse the trend of losses. It has created the Seattle reLeaf program, which dispatches volunteer tree ambassadors to neighborhoods and encourages planting trees, provided free by the city.

“People come here for the jobs and the great climate and because it’s green,” says Cass Turnbull, founder of the nonprofit Plant Amnesty, and TreePAC, a political nonprofit formed to advocate for urban trees.

“Pretty soon it will just be for the jobs,” she says. “That would be sad.”

The past 150 years of clearing, regrading and development have left only remnants of the once vast forest that cloaked the Puget Sound region. Today about 3,700 acres of natural areas in forested parks and greenways, in addition to street trees and trees on private land, comprise the city’s total tree canopy.

Unlike on the East Coast, where non-American Indian settlement came earlier, leaving trees more time to regrow—and some truly mammoth older trees were never cut—the biggest, most venerable trees in the Seattle are just more than a century old, and most are far younger and smaller than that.

Even in city parks, more than half the trees are smaller than six inches in diameter, according to a city report.

Urban trees are a lifeline to nature not only in Seattle, but for the majority of residents in the United States, where 80 percent of the population lives in urban areas.

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