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Miami-Dade promised to plant more trees but didn’t. Religious leaders push for new vows

Many neighborhoods in Miami-Dade like this one in Hialeah lack trees and shade that can help offset rising temperatures.
Pedro Portal
Miami Herald
Many neighborhoods in Miami-Dade like this one in Hialeah lack trees and shade that can help offset rising temperatures.

A decade and a half ago, Miami-Dade County vowed to plant more trees. The 2007 Street Tree Master Plan called for increasing the “tree canopy” to 30% by 2020. That means that if you were to fly over, 30% of what you would see below would be the green tops of trees and shrubs that provide cooling shade in an increasingly hot climate.

The county failed to even come close. The latest 2021 county tree canopy report put coverage at just 20.1%. That’s hardly budged from 19.9% measured in 2016. The county has since pushed its goal back a decade — 30% tree coverage by 2030.

On Monday night, a countywide group of churches, synagogues, mosques and religious universities called People Acting for Community Together (PACT) invited Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava and public schools Superintendent Jose Dotres to the St. James Catholic Church in North Miami to hold their feet to the fire on trees — particularly in under-served communities.

“Tonight we are going to be discussing this issue with the mayor and the superintendent to hold them accountable to achieve 30% tree canopy by 2030, thus preventing financial burdens, hospitalizations and even death from extreme heat,” said Khalilah Abdullah of the Masjid Al Ansar mosque.

Shade trees are an important tool for fighting extreme heat, which already kills about 34 people and hospitalizes hundreds more each year in Miami-Dade County. Hotter days also lead to higher electric bills, as local residents crank up their air conditioners to keep their homes at safe temperatures. (To compound the issue, Florida power companies are raising electricity prices.)

The problem is expected to get worse as climate change ratchets up global temperatures, according to a county report on extreme heat published in December. Local temperatures topped 90 degrees about 85 days a year in 1960. Today, temperatures hit 90 degrees about 133 days a year. By 2050, that figure may rise to 187 days.

Speaking from the St. James pulpit before members from 40 churches, synagogues and mosques, the mayor and superintendent recommitted to the 2030 tree canopy goal and agreed to PACT’s demands that they release a budget and a list of yearly benchmarks for the tree planting project by May 12. The officials also agreed to sign a memorandum of understanding with PACT by April 11 to put their promises in writing.

Levine Cava said she supported the tree canopy goal, but stressed that she can’t make it happen without backing from the county commission. “The budget is approved annually by the county commission, so we will need to advocate together for the funding,” she told the crowd.

PACT’s tree planting plan

PACT has called on the county to meet its own goal of 30% tree cover by 2030. But PACT goes a step further by calling for the county to address the inequality in Miami-Dade County’s tree cover and prioritize 15 “areas of concern” for tree planting.

These 15 areas are Miami-Dade neighborhoods that have tree canopy cover under 20% and a poverty rate over 20%. They are: Opa-locka, Brownsville, Gladeview, West Perrine, Naranja, West Little River, Goulds, Pinewood, Hialeah, Westview, Norland, Carol City, Lake Lucerne, Scott Lake and Bunche Park.

PACT also advocates for more trees to be planted at schools in these areas, which are big areas of government-owned land that typically have wide fields that could be shaded by trees. Putting trees at schools, PACT argues, would be a quick way to boost canopy cover in neighborhoods without much shade.

Dotres said he supports the idea. “We are absolutely committed to this joint project which is important to our community and also our students,” he said.

PACT has been talking to county officials about its tree canopy demands for months. PACT communications director Leigh Toney said that at PACT’s October meeting, Levine Cava and Dotres promised to sign a memorandum of understanding adopting the group’s tree planting goals by Feb. 27. But neither official has signed a memo. Both stressed on Monday that they need approval from the county commission and the school board to do so.

'Nehemiah action'

Monday’s event was PACT’s annual “Nehemiah Action,” named for the biblical figure Nehemiah. In this unique event format, local officials appear in a house of worship in front of members of dozens of local congregations. They are hardly allowed to speak.

Instead, a team of cross-faith religious leaders explains a problem their congregations want to solve and lays out a proposed solution. Then, the religious leaders invite each official to the pulpit one by one and ask them a series of yes or no questions.

For instance, on Monday, Rev. Willie Allen-Faiella of St. Stephens Episcopal Church asked Levine Cava whether she would release a tree canopy budget and yearly tree planting benchmarks by May 12, give PACT a progress update on tree planting every six months and sign a memorandum of understanding committing to those promises by April 11.

Elected officials are only allowed to say “yes” or “no.” If they answer yes to PACT, the crowd responds with a collective cry of “Let justice roll!” If they answer no, the crowd is instructed to sit in silence to send a message to the officials.

On Monday, the mayor and the superintendent answered yes to all questions, bringing on a chorus of “Let justice roll!” Afterward, each official was allowed to address the crowd for about a minute. Both expressed their support for PACT’s tree planting plan, but Levine Cava emphasized that, ultimately, the decision was out of her hands.

“I have the memorandum of understanding. I’ve approved it personally. … I will put it on the agenda to the best of my ability at the April 4 board of county commission meeting,” Levine Cava said. “Just to be super clear, the board votes, I don’t.”

This climate report is funded by Florida International University, the Knight Foundation and the David and Christina Martin Family Foundationin partnership with Journalism Funding Partners. The Miami Herald retains editorial control of all content.

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