Buffalo and Durham, North Carolina, are similar in some key ways. They both have about a quarter of a million residents. About four in 10 are Black.
They also share a problem — a lack of trees in Black neighborhoods.
But Durham’s response — to develop a comprehensive tree planting plan — contrasts with Buffalo, which is cutting down as many as four trees for every tree it plants in East Side neighborhoods.
The result: Durham is planting more than 1,500 trees a year, compared with about 300 in Buffalo. In fact, Durham planted more trees last year than Buffalo has in the past four.
The North Carolina city turned to the U.S. Environmental Protect Agency to help it develop a plan in 2018. The goal: plant 10,000 trees in neighborhoods most in need of them.
The EPA identified eight neighborhoods to focus tree-planting efforts, “prioritizing vulnerable populations.”
Buffalo’s EPA field office was not aware of any similar effort with the city here, according to spokesperson John Senn.
“As part of the Trees Across Durham initiative, the City of Durham is dedicated to increasing its tree stock by 1,500 trees per year between 2019 and 2026,” according to a research study conducted by the EPA and the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education.
As of August, 6,516 trees have been planted in Durham over four years. Buffalo, during the last four years that data is available, has planted 1,349.
Durham employs 12 in its forestry department, while Buffalo has six employees.
Buffalo funds its forestry services out of its general budget. Durham has more diversified funding, “a combination of our own Division funds as well as contributions from other City departments, nonprofits, partner organizations, and resident contributions,” according to Daniel Hickey, Durham’s tree planting coordinator.
He noted that part of the funding, including the maintenance of trees, comes through Durham’s Water Into Trees, a program allowing residents to donate through their water bills.
“Donation[s] through this optional program are used exclusively to purchase additional trees for City streets, parks, and green spaces,” Hickey wrote in an email.
Durham’s tree planting efforts have been primarily directed toward eight key neighborhoods identified by the EPA as “vulnerable populations.”
Nearly all of the prioritized areas have majority Black populations, according to Census data.
“Each year, we have a goal to plant at least 85 percent of our trees in the priority neighborhoods that the EPA identified for us,” Hickey said. “Since 2018, we have been successful in reaching that goal.”
Durham’s Urban Forestry Division has partnered with community organizations and local nonprofits to plant trees in the eight targeted neighborhoods.
“[T]hrough our partnerships with local nonprofits, such as Keep Durham Beautiful and Trees Durham, we have held community planting events where volunteers can plant trees in Durham,” Hickey said.
Some neighborhoods are still lacking attention, however.
Hayti, a predominantly Black neighborhood just southeast of downtown, has earned a Tree Equity Score of 20 out of a possible 100 through American Forests, a national advocacy group. A tree equity score is an aggregate number — zero to 100 — based on canopy coverage and other social factors. A score of 100 means a neighborhood has achieved tree equity.
According to American Forests’s data, the Hayti neighborhood records an average temperature of 83 degrees — 8 degrees hotter than a neighborhood roughly three miles away. Yet a portion of the Hayti neighborhood was not included in any of the eight targeted areas.
With $1.5 billion allocated to urban forestry in the Inflation Reduction Act, federal funding could possibly lead to more trees being planted in places like Hayti — or Buffalo’s East Side.
In terms of Durham’s future plans to pull from the Inflation Reduction Act’s funding, Hickey’s comments align with Buffalo’s city officials: He doesn’t know.
“We currently do not have plans to access these funds,” Hickey said. “[B]ut as they become available over the next decade we will pursue options to help fund our tree planting program.”