Examining the Distributional Equity of Urban Tree Canopy Cover and Ecosystem Services Across United States Cities

PLoS One. 2020 Feb 11;15(2):e0228499. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0228499. eCollection 2020.


Examining the distributional equity of urban tree canopy cover (UTCC) has increasingly become an important interdisciplinary focus of ecologists and social scientists working within the field of environmental justice. However, while UTCC may serve as a useful proxy for the benefits provided by the urban forest, it is ultimately not a direct measure. In this study, we quantified the monetary value of multiple ecosystem services (ESD) provisioned by urban forests across nine U.S. cities. Next, we examined the distributional equity of UTCC and ESD using a number of commonly investigated socioeconomic variables. Based on trends in the literature, we predicted that UTCC and ESD would be positively associated with the variables median income and percent with an undergraduate degree and negatively associated with the variables percent minority, percent poverty, percent without a high school degree, percent renters, median year home built, and population density. We also predicted that there would be differences in the relationships between each response variable (UTCC and ESD) and the suite of socioeconomic predictor variables examined because of differences in how each response variable is derived. We utilized methods promoted within the environmental justice literature, including a multi-city comparative analysis, the incorporation of high-resolution social and environmental datasets, and the use of spatially explicit models. Patterns between the socioeconomic variables and UTCC and ESD did not consistently support our predictions, highlighting that inequities are generally not universal but rather context dependent. Our results also illustrated that although the variables UTCC and ESD had largely similar relationships with the predictor variables, differences did occur between them. Future distributional equity research should move beyond the use of proxies for environmental amenities when possible while making sure to consider that the use of ecosystem service estimates may result in different patterns with socioeconomic variables of interest. Based on our findings, we conclude that understanding and remedying the challenges associated with inequities requires an understanding of the local social-ecological system if larger sustainability goals are to be achieved.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Cities / epidemiology
  • City Planning* / methods
  • City Planning* / organization & administration
  • City Planning* / standards
  • City Planning* / statistics & numerical data
  • Conservation of Natural Resources / methods*
  • Conservation of Natural Resources / statistics & numerical data
  • Ecosystem*
  • Forests*
  • Health Equity / standards
  • Health Equity / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Population Density
  • Social Justice / standards
  • Social Justice / statistics & numerical data
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Trees* / physiology
  • United States / epidemiology

Grant support

This work was supported by funding from the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (DGE-1343012)(https://www.nsfgrfp.org/) and SEEDS: The CFAES Research Competitive Grants Program (https://www.oardc.ohio-state.edu/seeds/t08_pageview/Home.htm) to C.B.R. and a Division of Environmental Biology CAREER Grant (CAREER-1253197)(https://www.nsf.gov/div/index.jsp?div=DEB) and USDA Agricultural Research Program Initiative Foundational Programs Grant (2017-67013-26595)(https://nifa.usda.gov/program/afri-foundational-program) to M.M.G. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.