Charlottesville’s tree canopy is dwindling, according to a report from the city’s Tree Commission, with accelerating tree loss is higher in lower-income neighborhoods resulting in heat islands for some of the city’s most marginalized residents.
The Tree Commission presented its annual State of the Forest report to City Council on Tuesday. According to the commission’s report, the city saw a tree canopy loss of 660 acres, or 10% of the total canopy, between 2004 and 2018 and projects a total loss of at least 990 acres between 2004 and 2022, about 15% of the city’s total tree cover.
“This is becoming a citywide problem. We’re losing tree canopy at a rapidly accelerating rate. We’ve seen this before,” said Brian Menard of the Tree Commission. “The declining canopy has a lot of effects. It has effects on our livability in the city. It has effects on energy costs, but it especially has effects on our health. So this continues to be a concern. I believe it should be of concern for all of us.”
All but two neighborhoods, Starr Hill and the University of Virginia, have experienced tree canopy loss. However, Starr Hill already had the city’s lowest tree canopy, at 14% while the 10th and Page neighborhood has the second lowest tree canopy, at 18%.
In stark contrast, the Barracks/Rugby and Greenbrier neighborhoods have the densest tree canopies, hovering at 58% and 55% respectively.
“We know that those low canopy neighborhoods correlate with historically low income neighborhoods and so we have a problem in those neighborhoods,” Menard said. During the day and night, rural and urban areas are subject to the same sun exposure, yet they have different temperatures. This happens because the composition and geometry of these two areas are drastically different. An urban area is mostly made up of asphalt and buildings, among other opaque materials, that absorb heat. In contrast, a rural area is going to have more green areas and typically fewer vertical structures. In an urban area, there is the added factor of this phenomenon called an urban surface heat island as well as an urban atmosphere heat island.
This results in higher temperatures and higher energy costs for these areas, especially seen in the 10th and Page neighborhood. A Community Climate Collaborative report found that on average, residents of 10th and Page spent at least 10% of their income on energy costs, in comparison to a 2% average across the city.
Through its climate assessments
, the city is planning to address these heat islands that predominantly affect lower income and minority neighborhoods, and increase the tree canopy by planting trees and limiting tree removal is part of the solution, Tree Commission members said.
However, the city has not been met its goal to plant 200 trees a year in five years, Menard said.
The Tree Commission is asking the city to grant its fiscal year 2023 budget capital improvement program requests of $100,000 for tree planting and $105,000 to address an anticipated significant loss of ash trees.
“We believe that trees save lives, so our mission is to protect the health and wellbeing particularly of our local neighborhoods from the heat effects of climate change,” said Peggy Van Yahres, chair of the Tree Commission. “We’re going to plant new trees. We’re going to try to preserve existing large trees, and we’re going to educate.”