Identifying social barriers to equitable tree planting and quantifying potential benefits to overcoming them

Identifying social barriers to equitable tree planting and quantifying potential benefits to overcoming them


The urban forest is not equitably distributed, with under-resourced communities receiving fewer benefits from trees than more affluent ones. Recently, governmental and green organizations have made the reduction of this inequity one of their primary goals. However, these efforts often do not garner buy-in from their intended communities, and consequently fail to achieve their objectives. This is in part because these organizations are frequently outsiders to the communities where they work and do not understand the social barriers or concerns that residents may have towards greening efforts.

In the City of Chicago, many organizations—including the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the Chicago Region Trees Initiative, and the city’s Invest SW Initiative—are embarking on greening efforts in communities that struggle with persistent poverty, poor public health, and high urban heat island effects. These projects and future ones could be more successful if they are able to understand and meet the needs of the communities that they work in. We propose to work with these organizations to survey residents to understand their:

  1. perceptions of the ecosystem services and disservices that trees provide,
  2. opinions of current condition of green and gray infrastructure, and
  3. experiences with governmental and non-governmental greening organizations.

Understanding these social factors is essential to identifying what steps can be taken to overcome barriers towards tree plantings.

We will compare the results of this resident survey to another survey that we will administer to staff members in organizations that are working on greening projects in these communities. This will enable us to identify potential mismatches in perceptions of trees, barriers to greening projects, and strategies to overcome these barriers.

Finally, successful regreening efforts could have profound impacts on the health and wellness of residents in under-resourced communities. The urban heat island effect, poor air quality, and crime cause premature deaths in urban areas. This study will model how the urban forest could change if barriers to greening are overcome, and then estimate the number of premature deaths that could be prevented by this forest expansion.

Our proposed study will focus on the City of Chicago, but inequity in tree cover is an issue across the United States. Our results will inform strategies for working with under-resourced urban communities across the country, and our methods for modelling the impacts that greening projects would have could be replicated to encourage these greening efforts.

Study Results

This researched surveyed 1,243 residents of the seven-county Chicago region to identify barriers to planting trees on residential properties and parkways. Additionally, we sent a similar survey to greening organizations and municipal foresters to see if there were mismatches in perceived barriers to tree plantings and to see if strategies that they were using effectively addressed residents’ concerns.

Residents had positive perceptions about trees and reported fewer negative opinions towards the disservices that trees can do than greening organizations expected they would. However, opinions about the services and disservices of trees varied between white and non-white respondents, with white respondents having more positive opinions about the ecosystem services that trees provide and non-white residents reporting more uncertainty about these services.

We also found that lower income residents reported experiencing more barriers to planting trees in their yards, and that the largest barriers were the inability to transport trees, the lack of tools to plant them, and the cost of buying and maintaining them. Greening organizations largely expected the barriers that residents reported, and found that strategies that they had employed to overcome these barriers were working.

Finally, we found that willingness to plant trees is related to perceptions of the condition of neighborhood infrastructure. That is, people who lived in neighborhoods with above average roads, libraries, parks, and street trees were willing to plant more trees.

We forecasted that if all of the residents in the Chicago region who have room for and interest in trees were able to plant them, we could plant 8.4 million trees. By 2050, this could result in the removal of $265 million in pollution removal and $495 million in carbon sequestration.


Year of Grant Awarded: 2021

Grant Program: Bob Skiera Memorial Fund Building Bridges Initiative Grant Program

Grant Title: Identifying social barriers to equitable tree planting and quantifying potential benefits to overcoming them

Researcher: Lindsay Darling