Lisa Johnson grew up on a farm, raising pigs and chickens, in the Hazelwood neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

No doubt that the location of her childhood experience may come as a surprise to many, given that Hazelwood is often associated with development and industry.

Johnson, a 58-year-old retired police officer, still has a home in Hazelwood but spends much of her time living above a funeral home she directs in Homestead. Sometimes she feels disappointed by how the green spaces in Hazelwood have become neglected, overgrown and littered with garbage. 

“When we went back up there and everything was so overgrown, it just didn’t look the same anymore,” Johnson said. 

But last year Johnson went on a hike hosted by the Hazelwood Initiative on the Hazelwood Greenway. 

“It was beautiful because it was taking me back to when I was a kid,” Johnson said. “And that’s all we knew. The woods, nature, different stuff like that. Being a grown woman now … kids just don’t get that anymore.” 

She believes being in nature is important for kids like her grandchildren — and studies back that up, saying exposure to nature helps kids become healthier both physically and mentally. But she also knows that initiatives for tree planting and protecting green spaces in the place she grew up have to compete with other forces. 

“I think there’s a lot of people wanting to buy that property and build on it, and I think instead of doing something like that, we could have another Frick Park-type thing going on up there,” Johnson said. 

In Lisa Johnson’s youth, nature was a big part of growing up in Hazelwood. These family photos include Lisa, her father Charlie Johnson, her sister Rosetta Johnson Griggs and her nephew Michael Strothers. (Courtesy of Lisa Johnson)

Having fewer trees and green spaces to enjoy impacts the mental health and well-being of residents, but it also causes problems like poorer air quality, increased temperatures and flooding. A mix of varied priorities, competing interests and historical lack of investment in underprivileged communities have created a tree equity problem in which some Pittsburgh-area neighborhoods have a lesser tree canopy than others. 

Experts in 2014 considered Pittsburgh’s urban tree canopy of 42% – meaning trees shade about two-fifths of the city – to be good for an American city. But a recent virtual presentation by the nonprofit Tree Pittsburgh in collaboration with Fair Forests outlined the unequal distribution of this tree canopy across neighborhoods. Predominately white and wealthy neighborhoods have the best tree canopies, whereas nearly half of the communities with less-than-Pittsburgh-average tree canopy are disproportionately low income and Black. 

Dr. Isabela Angelelli, a Tree Pittsburgh board member and pediatrician, identifies trees as vitally important for families’ health, and said it’s crucially important for green infrastructure to be considered when examining community health. 

“When you go to a neighborhood with more tree canopy, you see people using the green space,” Angelelli said. “It invites you to go outside and interact with nature. And that’s healing.” 

Tree target areas

Communities like Hazelwood, with a tree canopy in 2015 of 29%, have made progress on improving their coverage. Other areas have sparser tree canopies. 

The City’s Climate Action Plan 3.0 calls for an ambitious increase to its tree canopy, from about 42% to 60% by 2030. Pittsburgh’s overall tree canopy decreased to 41% between 2010 and 2015. A transition report from the Mayor Ed Gainey administration released in May doubled down on the Climate Action Plan’s call to “HALT the loss of forest canopy to developers.” 

The Pittsburgh Shade Tree Commission, a panel of government and neighborhood representatives created by Pittsburgh City Council in 2005, identified 10 areas last year as priorities for increased tree investment. The commission chose neighborhoods based on factors such as racial and economic demographics, tree canopy levels and air quality, according to City Forester Lisa Ceoffe. These neighborhoods, along with their approximate tree canopy percentages according to 2015 data, are:

  • Arlington Heights – 60%
  • Beltzhoover – 49%
  • California-Kirkbride – 27%
  • Esplen – 21%
  • Homewood West – 29%
  • Homewood South – 19%
  • Homewood North – 44%
  • Knoxville – 24%
  • Larimer – 20%
  • Middle Hill – 27%

“We’ve always been planting in areas where there’s less tree canopy,” Ceoffe said. “That’s always been a priority for us… But this [investment plan] was a little more in-depth.” 

This spring, the commission planted one tree in each neighborhood as a symbolic start to the initiative. The pandemic proved to be a big impediment, slowing progress, Ceoffe said. 

Getting buy-in from residents can be difficult because of poor implementation and maintenance of trees in the past. If planted incorrectly, trees can damage sidewalks and interfere with power lines. 

“We’re already challenged with trying to convince people why you’d want to have a tree when they’re having such negative experiences,” Ceoffe said. 

Appealing to tree skeptics

Tree planting may not seem important to residents, according to Jamil Bey, formerly part of the Shade Tree Commission and co-chair of the Infrastructure and Environment Committee on Gainey’s transition team. Bey runs UrbanKind Institute, a think tank and consulting group concerned with investment in underserved Pittsburgh communities.

UrbanKind has a program called Trust Trees, focused on sharing information about the benefits of trees for communities. In neighborhoods like Hazelwood, Brookline, Beltzhoover and Garfield, UrbanKind has conducted an activity in which it hands out dozens of index cards to residents with typical community concerns written on them like “street parking.” When asked to rank their concerns, residents would place trees toward the bottom. 

Then participants have to work together to decide as a group what the priorities are. Through conversation, trees’ importance becomes clear. 

“We saw that the tree card always made its way back up because people were talking about: ‘Wait, we said that we wanted to control stormwater. We said that basement flooding was important. We said that clean air was important. We said that improving property values was important and mental health. And trees can help us with that,’” Bey said. 

Tree Pittsburgh has a ReLeaf Neighborhoods program that works to improve the tree canopies in Hazelwood, Glen Hazel, Manchester, Chateau and Lawrenceville. ReLeaf works in conjunction with neighborhood groups like Hazelwood Initiative and Lawrenceville Tree Tenders.

Tiffany Taulton, director of outreach and sustainability at the Hazelwood Initiative, said the group planted 80 trees in April and 173 trees in November. She’s proud of the progress her community has made. Ensuring trees are planted correctly and convincing residents of it has proven to be among the biggest challenges. 

“When trees were originally planted in many communities, they were not the right tree for the right space,” Taulton said. “You have trees that have grown very large, and then they have these horrendous cuts around them because of utility lines, or they’ve led to sidewalks being raised, and so they become a tripping hazard and a mobility impairment for people.” 

While Taulton said the vast majority welcome trees, she said some dislike the restrictions that come with maintaining public green spaces. Residents can’t, for example, use these spaces for dumping, hunting or riding ATVs. 

Development on Hazelwood Green is spurring discussion of the fate of the now-wooded slopes above. (Photo by Kaycee Orwig/PublicSource)

“There have been some conflicts there with people who are not pleased to see more family-friendly uses of the greenway in there and more public use because they view it as their backyard,” Taulton said. 

Christine Brill, an architect and Lawrenceville resident of more than two decades, has volunteered with the Lawrenceville Tree Tenders since its inception in 2008. This group plants trees around Lawrenceville – the tree canopy is about 14% in Upper Lawrenceville, 30% in Central Lawrenceville and 12% in Lower Lawrenceville. She’s also run into skepticism and challenges in planting trees correctly. 

“There’s so many restrictions in terms of proximity to utility lines and electrical poles and all that stuff that there just aren’t that many sites that are great, and then you have the factor that some people just don’t want them,” Brill said. 

She does her best to fill Lawrenceville with trees. 

“My little girl, my 9-year-old, she’s helped me plant trees before,” Brill said. “And we’re always trying to plant more trees in our backyard. I don’t think we can fit anymore.” 

Johnson loved her hike on the greenway so much that she plans to go again in the future with her grandchildren. 

“Kids are very adventurous,” Johnson said. “You take them somewhere, and they start seeing natural stuff, rabbits running around and turkeys running around and stuff like that, that would spark their interests. And you never know where that might take them.” 

Matt Petras is an independent writer and educator based in the Pittsburgh area. He can be reached at matt456p@gmail.com or on Twitter @mattApetras.

The Jewish Healthcare Foundation has contributed funding to PublicSource’s health reporting.

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