USC Dornsife researchers aim to find the best places to add cooling tree canopies in overheated, underserved communities. (Composite: Kim Nguyen. Images: Jillian Gorman and iStock.)

Where urban tree canopies and environmental justice meet

USC Dornsife researchers aim to bolster urban greenery, lower city temperatures and address longstanding environmental inequities, powered by a $2.9 million grant from the Bezos Earth Fund.
ByDaniel P. Smith

Asgmt Earth USC

What would you do if you had more resources for your work?

When this question hits a researcher’s ears, it usually sparks more than a little interest. For John Wilson and Manuel Pastor, it led to a $2.9 million grant from the Bezos Earth Fund.

The two USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences professors, invited by the Earth Fund to apply for the grant, will use the funds to counter some of climate change’s negative impacts and to narrow existing environmental equity gaps plaguing cities across the United States.

Over the next two years, Wilson, director of USC Dornsife’s Spatial Sciences Institute, and Pastor, director of USC Dornsife’s Equity Research Institute, will develop tools to promote and prioritize equity-driven urban greening.

In practical terms, this means finding the best places to add tree canopies, which have proven effective in lowering urban area land temperatures, where they are sorely needed in underserved communities.

USC scholars work with community members on the USC Urban Trees project. (Photo: Gus Ruelas.)

“Together, we want to strengthen the voice for climate justice and greening cities,” says Pastor. He and Wilson will work closely with community partners to provide tools for understanding the issues they face and advocate for real-world change based on scientific findings.

The grant comes as part of the Bezos Earth Fund’s Greening America’s Cities initiative, a $400 million commitment through 2030 to create more equitable access to urban green spaces by increasing the number of parks, trees and community gardens in U.S. cities.

“The Bezos Earth Fund is proud to partner with local communities and government to expand urban green spaces,” said Andrew Steer, president and CEO of the Bezos Earth Fund. “In partnership, this new initiative will support historically underserved communities, supporting their health and well-being.”

Tools to inform action

Over recent years, researchers at the Spatial Sciences Institute — as part of the USC Urban Trees Initiative led by USC Dornsife’s Public Exchange — have been working with the City of Los Angeles and community partners like North East Trees to analyze the existing urban canopy and plantings in five low-income L.A. neighborhoods.

The Bezos grant will help advance this work and complete data analysis. It will also enable Wilson and his team of USC students and postdoctoral fellows to deploy remote-sensing methods, shifting from hand counting and planting new trees to measuring tree loss and canopy growth more consistently.

“We want to bring solid measurement tools to the table, so we can know if we’re making progress,” says Wilson.

Illustrations depict the current tree canopy and its potential increase, based on recommendations from the USC Urban Trees Initiative, on Park Grove Avenue near USC’s University Park Campus. (Image: Esther Margulies.)

Equity Research Institute scholars, meanwhile, will expand their relationship with PolicyLink, a longtime partner in producing the National Equity Atlas. The atlas provides community leaders and policymakers with national and regional data on demographic change, racial and economic inclusion, and the potential economic gains from racial equity.

They’ll also cultivate deeper connections with community-based partners like TreePeople and the Atlanta-based Partnership for Southern Equity to accelerate urban greening initiatives.

Specifically, institute researchers will identify and integrate four new environmental indicators into the Atlas to support climate justice efforts in U.S. cities. Advocates can then use that data to push for government action and funding.

“Data combined with a good narrative, advocacy and community pressure helps to create action,” Pastor says.

Helping community changemakers

Wilson and Pastor, who first teamed together some 25 years ago to elevate the work of Los Angeles area conservation agencies, believe their latest collaboration can help public agencies, nonprofits and community groups alike craft pragmatic, even-handed proposals for greener cities.

By sharing their suite of tools and data with others, the USC Dornsife researchers offer others a playbook to increase their urban tree canopy while respecting environmental justice goals.

“Tools like ours combined with a strong community voice and advocacy can help people make a case for policies and funds necessary to make a difference in their neighborhoods,” Pastor says. “Ultimately, we want to get the right tools into the hands of changemakers.”

Both Pastor and Wilson describe their joint effort as a way to uplift lives and strengthen communities, especially in light of swelling evidence that greening U.S. cities can improve physical and mental health, increase local resilience to extreme weather events and trim energy consumption.

“One role that researchers like Manuel and I play is to help demonstrate the value proposition and pathways to alternative futures that can improve environmental quality and human well-being in communities with less resources and amenities than others,” Wilson says. “That’s critical because we need to change how we live to build more sustainable and resilient communities everywhere.”


Featured USC Dornsife faculty:

John Wilson, Professor of Sociology, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Computer Science, Architecture and Population and Public Health Sciences, and Director of the Spatial Sciences Institute.

Manuel Pastor, Distinguished Professor of Sociology and American Studies and Ethnicity, Turpanjian Chair in Civil Society and Social Change, and Director of the Equity Research Institute.