(From left) Beth Griffith and Jane, 9, choose trees for their home at the Parks and Recreation Department tree adoption before the groundbreaking ceremony.
(From left) Beth Griffith and Jane, 9, choose trees for their home at a Parks and Recreation Department tree adoption event at Phil Hardberger Park. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

On a recent Saturday morning, Tim Jones walked out of Mission Marquee Plaza with a young crape myrtle tree. He was one of 200 people to pick up a free 5-gallon tree courtesy of San Antonio’s Parks and Recreation Department.

Jones stopped by the event after seeing a post about it on Facebook, he said. He was in the process of replacing his dying pecan trees and saw it as a well-timed opportunity, as well as a beneficial city initiative.

“A lot of people can’t afford to go out to nurseries and buy trees,” he said. “This is a good way for us to replant our city. We need all the trees we can get.”

Each year, the City of San Antonio gives away thousands of trees. Many of those are through “tree adoption” events, open to anyone who attends and wants a tree. But the parks department also wants to distribute trees in a more targeted manner, aiming to address an often overlooked aspect of inequity in San Antonio: the presence of fewer trees in poorer sections of the city.

Trees scrub pollution out of the air, help mitigate flooding, and at their most basic, provide shade to those underneath their branches. But in census tracts categorized as “high-need,” the number of trees tends to dwindle.

“You have 9% of our city’s trees serving 24% of the population,” said the city’s Ross Hosea, special projects manager over urban forestry and trails, at an October meeting of the parks and recreation board, which serves as the “voice of the community” in advising the parks department.

The department aims to plant 1,100 trees through its equity tree program, dubbed “EquiTree,” in 2022. The idea of encouraging tree development in poorer areas of San Antonio is not new; when City Council first adopted its “equity lens” perspective in 2017 for budgeting purposes, city staff specifically mentioned equitable tree distribution as a priority. 

“Back in 2016, we began to explore new ways to reach a broader audience with our tree planting initiatives,” said Grant Ellis, natural resources manager at the parks department. “Historically, we had always planted in city parks and in other public properties or city properties throughout the city.”

In 2017, a city official told council members that Districts 2, 3 and 5 need more trees, because residents are less able to afford them.

Trees’ temperature-reducing abilities provide much-needed relief to residents during San Antonio summers, Hosea said. He also said some research links trees to better heart health and lower crime rates. All these positive outcomes of tree presence demonstrate the importance of making sure all of San Antonio has access to trees, he said.

“We’ve heard so much that trees improve our air and water quality, provide habitat for animals, all the great things that they do,” he said. “They have a lot of economic benefits. Studies have shown that trees add up to 20% of value to your property value.”

Since 2018, when the parks department began tracking trees and their location through its equity tree program, it has planted around 3,000 trees. The trees distributed through the equity program are much larger than the ones given away at tree adoption events, Ellis said.

“We provide a 30-gallon tree and these are several hundred pounds,” he said. “We work with an outside vendor to go in and plant them on these properties. They’re good, decent-sized trees that will hopefully grow and be maintained by the residents who are receiving them.”

To encourage interest in trees in targeted census tracts, the parks department aims to distribute 14,000 flyers in neighborhoods with the most low-income residents and people of color. But city staff estimates only 1,100 trees will be planted as a result of that effort.

For some residents, the benefits of having tree cover in their neighborhoods isn’t immediately apparent. Some residents see having a tree, with its falling leaves, as one more task on a to-do list.

“To be honest, not everyone sees a tree as a benefit,” Hosea said. “That’s an educational opportunity overall. There are just some people that just don’t want the hassle of a tree. I run into people from time to time throughout neighborhoods, and they’re like, ‘Yeah, no, I don’t want trees. They’re messy.’”

Data gathered by the United States Forest Service demonstrates that census tracts deemed more “socially vulnerable” a categorization based on factors such as poverty, lack of vehicle access, and crowded housing — have less tree coverage. That also correlates with the city’s equity matrix, which quantifies disparities in race and income in San Antonio: the higher the score, the higher the number of low-income people and people of color in that census tract.

Courtesy of the City of San Antonio

The trees that already exist in high-need areas of San Antonio also tend to be of lower value, Hosea said.

“There is a glaring difference here,” he said. “If you look at the very lowest need, they have pretty good quality trees such as the live oak, cedar elm, persimmon, or mountain laurel. But then you flip over here to the areas of high need, we have trees like tree of heaven, ligustrum, chinaberry — and those are considered invasive. Those are not trees that we want to have. In fact, development doesn’t even protect those trees.”

The equity tree program distributes native trees only to neighborhoods with high numbers of low-income residents and people of color because native trees tend to live longer and therefore bring longer-term benefits, Hosea explained.

During the tree giveaway event at Mission Marquee Plaza, city workers and volunteers helped people choose among five native or naturalized tree species: Texas redbud, Mexican buckeye, crape myrtle, Chinquapin oak, and bur oak.

Even so, a steady stream of people lined up to take home trees, which Alderete noted with satisfaction. The more trees planted, the thicker the city’s tree canopy, which also translates to energy efficiency in people’s homes, he said.

“We’re trying to encourage people to plant more and more trees, so we aren’t down so many trees,” he said.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that the crape myrtle is a naturalized tree species to Texas.

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.