Less than one percent of this neighborhood is open public space and 70% of land is made up of impermeable surfaces that trap a lot of heat on hot days. During a heat wave, this neighborhood can get up to 15 degrees hotter than more forested parts of the city. South Tacoma is also one of the 16 communities in our state that the Department of Ecology has identified as overburdened by air pollution due to a long history of local industrial activity.
Poor air quality and limited trees in communities like South Tacoma are a legacy of environmental racism. Historically, polluting industries have been placed in close proximity to neighborhoods made up largely of communities of color and near Native reservations, placing the burden of that pollution on the people who live there. Redlining policies that disinvested in these communities means residents have fewer parks and green space to help counteract that pollution. Part of the legacy of these policies are urban heat islands, flooding, and poor health. Frontline communities (e.g. communities of color, Native communities, and low-income communities) have been organizing for decades to get more attention on the issue of air pollution, and it is thanks to their leadership that we now have big policy opportunities.
Community efforts led by the City of Tacoma and the Tacoma Tree Foundation are working to re-green the neighborhood, with support from TNC’s GRIT project. The GRIT project looks to understand how tree canopy is impacting community well-being by tracking heat temperatures before, during, and after tree plantings and conducting interviews with residents to better understand their relationship to trees. Our initial findings show trees are powerful allies in mitigating urban heat, and each tree planted contributes to improvements in the community’s wellbeing across many metrics including climate resilience.