Longtime resident and president of the Crestline neighborhood association Randy Brown loves that he can park his car in the shade of a 100-year-old sycamore tree. 

“My wife has very pale skin, and her family had big oak trees all around their house. … She wanted trees to keep her backyard shaded because she enjoys working out in the yard,” Brown said.

Less than five miles to the west, it would be hard to find a sliver of shade compared to the expansive canopy of Crestline. The average household income in Crestline is nearly $140,000. Neighborhoods with some of the lowest canopy cover in Fort Worth have a household income of $14,000. 

Fort Worth has a tree equity score of 89, lower than other metropolitan areas in Texas. The scale, created by American Forests, takes into account existing tree canopy, population density, race and income, among other factors, to get a score between 0 and 100. 

The map of where trees are planted in an urban setting often reflects the differences in income and race. In some parts of Fort Worth, the canopy cover is 6% while less than 5 miles away coverage is at 42%. 

Fort Worth bucks national trends of tree distribution. Rather than poverty being the driving factor of tree distribution, race is the biggest factor in Fort Worth. The whiter the neighborhood, the more canopy cover it tends to have. 

“There’s still a lot of work to be done in Fort Worth to achieve tree equity,” said Chris David, Vice President of GIS and Technology at American Forests who helped produce the map. 

The city would need to plant 850,000 trees to achieve equity by the study’s standards. But David said tree planting shouldn’t just be a numerical goal; instead, the city should try to plant in areas in greatest need of additional canopy cover.

Ratings of tree equity scores by cities in Texas

Austin: 95

Houston: 94 

San Antonio: 93

Dallas: 93

Arlington & Fort Worth: 89

As the city expands, Fort Worth is trying to increase its urban canopy and distribute trees into underserved areas. A 2018 study by the Texas Trees Foundation found the city has an urban canopy coverage of 18%. It has a goal of 30% canopy coverage but no specific timeline for achieving that.

Next door, Dallas recently took on increasing its canopy cover from 32% to 37%. With the help of Texas Trees Foundation, the city analyzed its existing canopy and created a plan to expand its coverage. 

The Texas Tree Foundation needs additional funding to create an urban forest master plan and a full tree inventory.

Sevanne Steiner, city urban forestry compliance planning manager, said she isn’t sure why planning with the Texas Tree Foundation stalled, but she does remember requesting a quote to produce a master plan with the city. 

Why we need trees

At the peak of Texas heat, the shade of an established oak tree can drop 105 degrees to  85-degrees. Even out of the shade, a high number of trees can lower the overall temperature of the area. 

“We’ve been noticing the extreme heat we’ve had. That shows how important it is to keeping urban areas cooler,” Laura Miller with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension in Tarrant County said. 

The Texas Trees Foundation found that DFW was second only to Phoenix in the amount of urban heat. 

A healthy urban canopy can:

Reduce blood pressure

– Decrease respiratory illness 

– Tree-lined streets often encourage healthy lifestyles.  

Decrease fatigue 

– Help your brain produce serotonin 

– Improve kids’ performance in school.

According to research compiled by the Southern Group of State Foresters

“We just need to balance our gray infrastructure with our green infrastructure,” Rachel McGregor, urban forestry manager with Texas Trees Foundation, said. 

It’s also more expensive to live in an area with sparse canopy coverage. Trees reduce air conditioning costs and increase property values. 

“Everyone needs to be aware of the benefits and realize that we’re all working together to reach an urban forest,” McGregor said.  

When trees are included in minority-majority and low-income neighborhoods, it makes the neighborhood cooler, healthier and happier. Yet, low-income neighborhoods often have the lowest amount of trees compared to wealthier neighborhoods. 

South Fort Worth has the highest concentration of block groups with equity scores under 70.

Challenges facing Fort Worth trees

This spring, the Texas Trees Foundation planted 125 trees with the help of donors across five Fort Worth parks. But planting trees is more than a one-time investment. Once a tree is placed, it takes continual irrigation and care to survive. For starters, those 125 trees require a two-year irrigation investment to maintain. 

The three factors that determine urban canopy cover are natural ecology, tree preservation and the continued planting of new trees. 

Tarrant County includes four different types of terrain, each with its unique ecological factors:  the Western Cross Timbers, the Fort Worth Prairie, the Eastern Cross Timbers and Blackland Prairie all stretch across the county. 

In North Fort Worth, where most of the rapid development in the city is taking place, there tends to be more prairie. Usually, the prairie is sparsely populated with trees. There are efforts to preserve the open prairie, as it contributes benefits to the local ecology. 

The city is planning to set aside $15 million of the 2022 bond package to “open space preservation.” As developers carve subdivisions out of the northern prairie, they are required to preserve 25% of the existing tree canopy. 

Last month, the Report found that developers had cleared vast amounts of trees from the Cross Timbers Ecoregion before obtaining prior permitting

Preserving old trees rather than planting new ones is the most effective form of tree preservation. An older tree captures more carbon, provides more shade and overall provides more health benefits than a young tree. 

The city aims to not only have species diversity in trees planted near streets, but it also aims to have age diversity.

To address tree equity in communities the city has just a sliver, literally, of space to plant new trees and encourage growth. In Fort Worth, the city owns the space between the sidewalk and the road. They can plant trees in that space and would be responsible for their preservation. 

“It would take a lot of resources to address tree equity by planting trees in that space because you can’t just plant trees and walk away and never take care of them again,” Miller said.

An urban forest master plan would create a coordinated approach to increasing the urban canopy in Fort Worth.  Although the city doesn’t have a master plan, it does have a deeply rooted way to distribute trees across the city.

How a tree farm helps

Trees growing at the Rolling Hills tree farm, on of the first in the state. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Fort Worth operates one of the state’s oldest municipal tree farms. Located in south Fort Worth, the farm gives away almost 1,600 trees every year to neighborhood associations and city parks. 

Most of the trees the city gives away go to neighborhood groups that get together and ask for trees, which they plant themselves. The farm grows up to 35 different native species from seed and then distributes them in 5-gallon containers. 

How you can request trees

To get a city tree, one person from the neighborhood agrees to be the neighborhood coordinator and serves as the link for the forestry section.

The number of trees provided for each address will depend on the available space. Large shade trees need to be spaced a minimum of 25 feet apart. Spacing considerations must also be observed for visibility at intersections, for street lights, meter boxes and other existing infrastructure.

It is the neighborhood’s responsibility to plant the trees or find volunteers if needed.

Residents rank their preferred tree species on the neighborhood’s registration page. While the forestry department will try to match requests, there is no guarantee of tree species.

Deliveries are set based on when neighborhoods complete and submit their sign-up. Fall is the best time for planting trees and also usually offers the broadest selection of trees. By late spring, the city may run out of trees for the season. If a list is already submitted when trees run out, you may opt to be placed on the waiting list for the following planting season.

Contact the forestry section at 817-392-7452 or forestry@fortworthtexas.gov for a current sign-up sheet or to have an online sign-up built for your neighborhood.

The tree grant program provides trees for parks, schools and libraries within the city limits. 

To address inequality in distribution, the Parks and Recreation Department reaches out to neighborhoods that lack a central neighborhood organization to encourage requests for free trees to replenish the existing canopy there. Also, in neighborhoods where the existing trees are reaching 40 or 50 years old, the city will try to provide younger trees to increase age diversity. 

“We’ll have volunteers available because some of those same neighborhoods will be high in elderly residents or disabled residents,” City Forester Craig Fox said. “So we’ll work with volunteers to help get the trees planted.”

Once the department starts working with these neighborhoods, they’ll do hazard abatement to clear any limbs that might pose a safety risk. Then they’ll identify plantable spaces and give residents a chance to request free trees. 

Past projects include Northside, where the department planted 250 trees. Parks and recreation  staff are currently working with the Rosemont neighborhood, where they will plant 150-200 trees. 

Trees are relatively expensive. They can cost upward of $500 for a mature tree. Fox said maintaining the tree farm can save a neighborhood from paying up to $20,000 to increase its tree canopy. 

“We can serve any area within the city because we’re providing the trees for free,” Fox said. 

Work still to be done

David of American Forests praised the tree farm as an excellent example of a city acting thoughtfully but planting 2,000 trees a year isn’t enough to achieve tree equity. Community organizations, local government and national representatives should all be prioritizing tree placement, he said. 

“Trees are critical infrastructure, so as budgetary decisions are being made, trees should be elevated,” David said. 

Dallas plans to conduct a tree inventory and then take steps to create a new tree ordinance designed to increase canopy coverage. An urban forestry master plan in Fort Worth would follow a similar model.

Although Fox keeps close tabs for the city on the conditions of trees, he doesn’t track Fort Worth’s progress toward reaching its 30% urban canopy goal. 

David said American Forests hasn’t done additional research to know whether cities that have an urban forestry master plan generally fare better in tree equity. But, he said, plans are only effective if they include distribution goals alongside numerical ones. 

The tree equity score analyzer identifies key areas where cities could make the biggest impact by planting trees. 

“It can be used as a really valuable policy tool to identify tree planting locations to target,” David said. 

As temperatures rise, the cooling power of trees becomes increasingly important. As air quality worsens, trees’ ability to capture carbon becomes increasingly essential. As trees become more important to communities their inequitable distribution becomes increasingly glaring. 

“We hope that this will spur more people to action,” David said. “This is a tool to help community organizations make the case to potential private funders or others.”

In a nutshell, the success of any city’s tree program depends on a public-private partnership. The city can provide thousands of free trees, but people have to appreciate their value.

Those sycamore trees that Brown loves to park under in Crestline are the result of developers who chose to plant saplings before World War I. The trees are the reason Brown chose Crestline for his home, but all his neighbors value them.

Even in Crestline, development has touched the canopy cover some residents moved there for. Brown has seen six of the sycamore trees and others he loves chopped down as people buy the property they stand on.

“We’ve had people who like the neighborhood but don’t like the trees so they cut them down,” said Brown, who lives on Tremont Avenue. “A giant pecan tree was cut down, and that creates some heartburn for the people in this community.”

Editor’s note: This story has been changed to reflect how many trees were planted in Fort Worth Parks.

Rachel Behrndt is a reporting fellow for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by grants from the Amon G. Carter and Sid W. Richardson foundations. Contact her at rachel.behrndt@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Rachel BehrndtGovernment Accountability Reporter

Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report in collaboration with KERA. She is a recent graduate of the University of Missouri where she majored in Journalism and Political...

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