Glades communities to get 1,000 new trees in $1m environmental justice project
A new $1 million environmental project will bring up to 1,000 native trees to parks in low-income communities in Palm Beach County.
Shade trees can be hard to find in some parts of South Florida — and with climate change making weather ever more extreme, that can have a significant impact in residents' quality of life.
That's particularly the case in communities such as those in the Glades region which, despite being rural, have a low rate of canopy coverage due to a history of segregation and under-investment.
The Palm Beach County program, called “Resilient Glades Tree Campaign,” is being funded by a $1 million federal grant by the Environmental Protection Agency.
It aims to improve human and environmental health in the Glades region in the western part of the county — which has the “lowest tree canopy in Palm Beach County,” according to Jennifer Cirillo, the county's Parks and Recreation Department director.
Cirillo told WLRN the county’s tree campaign could improve climate resilience and equity by increasing the tree canopy coverage in the South Bay, Belle Glade, Pahokee and Canal Point neighborhoods.
“A lot of times people think of agricultural areas of our county as green and lush, and they are. But when you look a little closer at where people actually are living and where they're playing, you know, those areas have not necessarily been as heavily invested in tree canopy," she explained.
Enjoying outdoor spaces safely
Much of that inequity stems from historical segregation, she said.
As a result of exclusionary zoning laws, low-income blocks across the US have had less urban tree cover than higher income blocks because greenery is "inequitably distributed," according to a 2021 peer-reviewed study. It means low-income blocks can be 1.5⁰C hotter.
“It's all connected and intersectional with redlining and things that went on and environmental investments in communities,” Cirillo said.
She said she could see "nearly 1,000 trees" planted in the residential areas.
County officials decided to help plant and maintain trees at six county parks and develop an urban food orchard, following feedback from a series of 'resiliency workshops' earlier this year.
“People explained how extreme heat combined with a lack of tree canopy coverage is a big problem for their community and prevents them from enjoying outdoor recreation spaces safely,” Megan Houston, Palm Beach County’s Office of Resilience director, explained in a statement.
The county’s Office of Resilience and Parks & Recreation Department will collaborate with Community Greening, a local urban forestry nonprofit which has already worked on similar projects elsewhere in the county.
According to Mark Cassini, executive director of Community Greening, “a healthy tree canopy is imperative for a healthy community.” However, South Florida is losing trees because of "development, storms and disease," he told WLRN.
The urban forestry nonprofit partnered with the city of Delray Beach to plant 10,000 trees by 2025 to increase the city’s tree canopy from 23% — considered "moderate density" by the city — to 28%, funded by the city’s Tree Trust Fund.
In contrast, the Glades residential areas have just 6% tree canopy coverage, according to a Community Greening study. The Glades region has the potential to reach 25% tree coverage.
Grassroots involvement - from students to residents
Like other Community Greening projects in Boca Raton, Boynton, West Palm Beach and Lake Worth, the latest campaign will also provide work for local high school volunteers.
“They're paid interns and they're working with us to water trees, mulch trees. And they go around in a 12-passenger van that's heavily supported by the US Fish and Wildlife Service,” Cassini said. “And so this model of using teens to help maintain the trees and then also invest in their community is what we're going to be doing in the Glades.”
Meanwhile, Glades residents will receive native and fruit trees as a way to kick off the re-greening project early next year. Jennifer Cirillo believes a “grassroots effort of involvement” in the projects by residents will make the environmental impact sustainable.
“The community in the Glades that participate in this effort will be able to plant trees that will be there for generations to come,” she said.
“They can look out their windows into their community, in their yards and know that they made a difference. They made a difference for their environment. They made a difference for their sense of community and belonging.”
Federal funds will be dispersed next year from the EPA’s Environmental Justice Government-to-Government (EJG2G) Program, which supports "government activities that lead to measurable environmental or public health impacts in communities disproportionately burdened by environmental harms,” a statement read. “The project will decrease urban heat impacts, improve air quality, absorb stormwater, increase native biodiversity and increase access to fresh produce.”