Tree cover in Philadelphia is unevenly distributed. The Philly Tree Plan aims to change that. (Mark Henninger/Imagic Digital)

A major budget boost is on its way for Philly’s plan to plant more trees and expand the green urban canopy more equitably across the city.

The Philly Tree Plan is getting a $12 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the federal agency announced last week. It will be a significant addition to the $2 million the city currently spends annually to implement its forestry roadmap.

The grant “represents the largest investment in Philadelphia’s urban forest in almost 30 years,” said Erica Smith Fichman, community forestry manager for the Department of Parks and Recreation, in a message sent to Tree Plan stakeholders and shared with Billy Penn.

The award is one of the larger grants in a $1.1 billion package of USDA investments in urban forests across the country. 

The city released its newly created, 10-year Philly Tree Plan in February after a lengthy community-engagement process involving more than 9,000 residents, according to Parks & Rec.

It includes dozens of recommendations for tree planting and maintenance, with the aim of reversing a trend of tree loss and making tree coverage more equitable. A 2019 analysis by WHYY’s PlanPhilly found there’s a major disparity between neighborhoods with lower median incomes and those with wealthier residents — the poorest half of city residents lived in areas with just one third of all city street trees.

Philly’s tree cover overall stood at 20% during the most recent assessment in 2018, down 6% from 2008. The extent of tree canopies ranged from less than 5% coverage in some neighborhoods, per the city, to more than 45% in others.

Reducing disparities in the number of street and yard trees has become a priority in Philadelphia due to their effects on health and crime and because of the increasing impact of climate change. On hot summer days, temperatures can differ by as much as 22 degrees between neighborhoods, adding to the urgency of planting and preserving trees.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania who studied Philadelphia and other cities found that more trees correlate directly with fewer shootings, with highly-deprived neighborhoods standing to see the greatest decrease in violence when they are greened. Trees also improve respiratory health and can reduce the risk of depression. 

The Philly Tree Plan considers existing tree cover, neighborhood heat exposure, air quality, household incomes, asthma levels and other factors to identify areas that get priority for tree planting and for strategies that make it easier for residents to plant and care for trees. 

“It is not going to be, ‘If you live here, you get resources, if you live here, you do not,’” Smith Fichman told PlanPhilly in February. The plan “is directing future investment — it is not redirecting existing investment.”

The new grants should help get the city a little closer to achieving the plan’s goals in the intended time frame. Getting every neighborhood to 30% tree cover within 30 years would cost an average of $25.5 million per year, or about $765 million in total, according to the plan.

Full implementation would prevent 400 premature deaths per year, reduce crime 12%, and add 1,000 full-time jobs and $20 million in annual environmental benefits, city officials estimated.

The federal grants announced by the USDA’s Forest Service were authorized by the Inflation Reduction Act, the massive budget bill President Biden signed in August 2022 that allocates $783 billion for climate and energy measures.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the grants are being granted as a number of cities experience “record-breaking heat waves” that impact public health and energy use.

“We are supporting communities in becoming more resilient to climate change and combating extreme heat with the cooling effects of increased urban tree canopy, while also supporting employment opportunities and professional training that will strengthen local economies,” Vilsack said.

The Urban and Community Forestry grants include $28 million total for Pennsylvania, with $9 million for two tree-planting programs in Pittsburgh and additional grants going to Harrisburg, Lancaster, Easton and other cities. Nearby grants include $3 million for tree-planting in Camden and $500,000 for forest services in Delaware.

Meir Rinde is an investigative reporter at Billy Penn covering topics ranging from politics and government to history and pop culture. He’s previously written for PlanPhilly, Shelterforce, NJ Spotlight,...