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Syracuse to Use $2M to Plant Trees, Combat Social Inequality

Mayor Ben Walsh has proposed using $2 million in federal stimulus funding to plant 3,600 trees over the next three years in an effort to improve social inequalities across the city. Each tree will cost $400 to plant.

(TNS) — Syracuse, N.Y., Mayor Ben Walsh has proposed using $2 million in stimulus money to plant 3,600 new trees in the next three years.

The proposal stands out from most of Walsh’s other plans for spending $123 million from the federal government. Much of it will be spent on things like new houses, water pipes, parks, small businesses, and programs to help renters and unemployed people.

So why does he want to use millions of dollars to plant trees?

“People that are surrounded by trees take them for granted,” Walsh said in an interview last week. “When you’re not, you begin to understand the value they add...The temperature is cooler. The air quality is better. Property values tend to be higher. They improve quality of life. They capture storm water.”

Steve Harris, the city arborist, said trees are a type of infrastructure. In addition to the benefits Walsh listed, he said tree cover plays a role in social equity.

“Time and again, a map of trees is a map of income,” Harris said. “Everywhere where there’s low canopy cover, there are poor neighborhoods. And everywhere there are poor neighborhoods, they were red-lined neighborhoods.”

Red-lining was a practice of housing discrimination in the early part of the 20th century that limited which neighborhoods Black families could live in. Its effects have lingered for generations in cities like Syracuse, leading to high segregation and high concentration of poverty.

Trees won’t fix all of that, but Harris and Walsh both say it’s an economical way to start.

Planting each tree costs around $400. That includes the cost of the tree and labor.

Walsh said that’s a relatively cheap way to improve quality of life. It will also boost property values in low-income neighborhoods, he said.

“I do think it is a matter of equity,” he said. “There’s a direct correlation between property values...and number of trees in neighborhoods.”

In a typical year, the city plants around 400 new trees, Harris said. But nearly twice that many get cut down due to disease or development.

The proposed spending supports a plan the city released last year to plant 70,000 trees by 2040. That plan — dubbed ReLeaf Syracuse — calls for one-third of the city to be covered by shade.

Currently, about 27 percent of the city is covered, which is below the average for cities east of the Mississippi River.

The ReLeaf Syracuse effort began under Mayor Roy Bernardi after the Labor Day Storm in 1998 toppled thousands of trees. The city scrapped the initiative in 2001, but Walsh resurrected it as part of the city’s effort to combat climate change.

A review of climate data by syracuse.com last year showed the city’s average temperature has increased one degree in the last 50 years.

The empty parking lot at the corner of West and Shonnard Streets is one of the hottest places in the city. It’s along a heavily trafficked corridor with little foliage.

Some trees, Harris said, could fix that.

The parking lot sits half a block from an elementary school and near a facility where people pick up food stamps. The area is also home to a higher-than-average number of senior citizens, Harris said.

“This is a hot spot. Air quality is worse here. It’s hotter here than an area with canopy cover,” he said. “This is the kind of place I looked at and thought, Where’s a vulnerable population, where’s a hot spot, let’s do a Venn diagram and see where they overlap. This is the spot.”

A report last year from syracuse.com showed the neighborhoods with the least tree cover have the highest average temperatures. There are also more trees in wealthier neighborhoods, like the areas around Syracuse University.

There are about 1.5 million trees in the city.

The Common Council is scheduled to vote Monday on the proposal. Councilors did not raise objections at a study session last week.

The council will also vote Monday on proposals to spend $10 million on water infrastructure, including a new intake pipe at Skaneateles Lake, and $1 million for a program to help tenants catch up on back rent.

©2021 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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