Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
A leisurely walk down many Twin Cities-area streets can be a lovely experience — especially when a canopy of trees provides shade and beauty. But that greenery does so much more than look pretty.
Trees play a critical role in climate stability. They provide shade that helps keep streets, sidewalks and buildings cooler. Trees help absorb some of the gases that contribute to global warming. Environmental scientists also tout their value in preventing or at least minimizing flooding.
And here and around the country, researchers have found that those who live and work in "heat islands" — such as urban areas densely developed with little regard for green space — experience more heat-related illnesses, higher utility costs and pollution that exacerbates conditions like heart disease, asthma and other respiratory conditions.
A recent Star Tribune news story described how fewer trees in some communities rob residents of crucial benefits. And the areas hit hardest by the lack of trees tend to be lower-income with higher populations of people of color.
It's important to spread the word, raise awareness and encourage friends and neighbors to put more trees in the ground. Property owners must learn more about tree-planting rules and the available resources to help them.
According to data from the Metropolitan Council, the differences in tree canopies from neighborhood to neighborhood can be stark. In Minneapolis, for example, the more affluent southwest neighborhoods have about 38% coverage, while some parts of the North Side have 20% or less. Similar differences exist in St. Paul. The Highland Park neighborhood has a 43% canopy, while Frogtown is at 23%.
In North Minneapolis, a tornado tore through the neighborhood in 2011 and took down 150 acres of trees. More than 10 years later, many of those trees have not been replaced. Costs, upkeep, reluctant landowners and landlords, competing dreams for limited space, and invasive pests are impeding canopy recovery.
The report "Growing Shade" identifies parts of the metro area where the Met Council sees environmental injustice, as well as other areas where insufficient tree cover raises concerns about public health and climate change. The study also offers sound guidance to cities and nonprofits about actions they can take.
"Trees are not distributed evenly around the region. There are real inequities," said Met Council data scientist Ellen Esch. "That has major consequences ... not only on individuals, but on the livability, on the prosperity and on everything in our region."
For help, residents can look to groups like Green Minneapolis, a nonprofit focused on natural spaces that wants to increase the region's canopy by 30% by planting and maintaining existing trees. And in August, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey created a new position to expand tree planting.
In St. Paul, Frogtown Green educates landlords and property owners about the financial benefits of trees. So far, they have planted 600 trees of their goal of 1,000 by 2025. And in St. Louis Park, the city offers trees to residents through a partnership with Tree Trust, an organization that can provide arborists with advice and workers to help plant trees.
Other cities have similar programs — some of which offer trees for free or low cost. Residents should take advantage of those efforts and encourage others to "green up" their communities.