Stories in Washington

The Power of Trees: A Walking Tour of Air Quality and Urban Forests in South Tacoma

Government Relations

A large group of people stand on an urban sidewalk and smile for the camera.
Every Tree Counts Community members toured South Tacoma to learn about the importance of greenspace and its role in improving air quality, reducing urban heat and managing pollution. © Sarah Brady

Every tree counts. This is what we learned recently on a walking tour of the Greening Research in Tacoma (GRIT) project with state and local leaders on a sunny day in South Tacoma. TNC staff were joined by state legislators, county and city council members, and local partners to visit a tree-planting project at a local school and a construction project to install permeable pavement, planting strips and new trees selected by the community. Projects like these go a long way in the Tacoma Mall neighborhood where there is limited greenspace, helping to improve air quality, reduce urban heat island impacts and manage stormwater pollution.

A group of people gather outside of a school and discuss urban trees.
Urban Trees Partners from the City of Tacoma and Tacoma Tree Foundation share about their efforts to improve tree canopy cover, in front of a tree planting project at the Madison School. © Joshua Rubenstein

Less than 1% of this neighborhood is open public space, and 70% of the 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 well-being across many metrics including climate resilience.

Several people stand on an urban sidewalk and have a discussion.
Learning Opportunities Legislators learn about the Greening Research in Tacoma (GRIT) project’s efforts to address high air temperatures in one of Tacoma’s hottest neighborhoods. © Sarah Brady

We are in an exciting moment to address air pollution with Washington’s frontline communities. In 2021 Washington passed the Climate Commitment Act (CCA), a groundbreaking piece of legislation that charts a path to decarbonization for our state through a cap-and-invest program for our state’s biggest polluters. Revenue from the CCA auctions can be invested in our state’s patchy air monitoring network to identify harmful sources of emissions and ways to address them. The CCA also includes a program to regulate localized air pollutants that can be harmful to human health—a critical safeguard unique to Washington’s cap-and-invest program.

Several people walk down a sidewalk in an urban area.
Partnership A fun mix of state legislators, city and county councilmembers, and local partners made for great conversations and connections! © Sarah Brady

On our tour, our staff, partners, state and local leaders had a rich conversation about how to take advantage of funding opportunities stemming from CCA revenues and unprecedented federal climate investments, along with key lessons learned from local efforts, to make a meaningful impact on air quality statewide.

A key takeaway from our conversation was how important the CCA Air Quality Program is to not only improve conditions for communities that have disproportionately carried the burden of pollution, but also make sure that decarbonizing our economy doesn’t repeat the mistakes of the past. For communities like South Tacoma, improving tree canopy is critical to their ability to adapt to rising temperatures under climate change and filter street pollution—which investments from CCA revenue can help address. Additionally, robust air monitoring is part of creating transparency and accountability so that polluters under the cap-and-invest program do not continue to disproportionately impact frontline communities like South Tacoma.

TNC is invested in seeing the promises of the CCA become real for frontline communities and supporting the leadership of local communities working for clean air and green neighborhoods.