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June 1, 2012 12:13 AM   Subscribe

Last week, I wrote about how urban trees—or the lack thereof—can reveal income inequality. After writing that article, I was curious, could I actually see income inequality from space? It turned out to be easier than I expected.
posted by infini (43 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
Obligatory "they're just aerial photos from airplanes, not from space"

Seriously, though, wow.
posted by DoctorFedora at 1:09 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


They look like Google Maps images to me. Aren't those from satellites in space?

Anyway, I feel this is doubly true for areas like Southern California where dense tree cover isn't nature's modus operandi. The differences in tree cover between this street in a high crime high poverty area and this street in a low crime "rich" area, both in my home of Long Beach, are ridiculously drastic.

In fact, the idea of "significant number of trees = good neighborhood" is so ingrained into my native Southern Californian brain that I have a genuinely hard time identifying bad neighborhoods when visiting other parts of the US. For example, the second article compares Somerville to West Cambridge. I street-viewed Somerville and had to go back to double check that it was the "bad" neighborhood. I see lots of trees, it looks great!
posted by Defenestrator at 1:49 AM on June 1, 2012 [6 favorites]


They came to my neighborhood, which is a really poor neighborhood - I mean, we have high unemployment and crime and really hungry people - and they said that they were going to plant some trees. "It won't help you eat," they said, "but you guys are going to look really good from space."
posted by twoleftfeet at 1:53 AM on June 1, 2012 [5 favorites]


It would seem to me that this is more a measure of relative population density and I don't think this adds much to the already large body of evidence suggesting a tight correlation between "income equality" and the size of the plot one is able to afford.

The first two photos contrast a tightly packed, unplanned urban ghetto to neatly arranged suburban streets. To my way of thinking, there are other differences in these photos suggesting "income equality" which are more obvious than the relative amount of trees, but maybe I'm reading too much into it.
posted by three blind mice at 1:54 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Could this not also be a product of continuously occupied vs "recently" developed housing areas? I know that areas of Manhattan where pocket parks were established had to be seriously amped up with soil amendments and tilling because the dirt there was just exhausted of nutrients and aerobic/anaerobic bacterial activity.

Also, most of the orderly, grid-mapped tree oases pictured seem to be post-war bedroom communities, where a white picket fence and an oak tree with a swing in the front yard were normative.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 1:59 AM on June 1, 2012


the already large body of evidence suggesting a tight correlation between "income equality" and the size of the plot one is able to afford.

The comparison is vastly more ridiculous than that. If you look at low income neighborhoods across the U.S., you'll see quite a few in rural areas, and these often have higher green density than comparable pictures from almost any densely populated urban center. So Mr. Moneybucks who lives in an apartment next to Central Park gets some satellite imagery points, but not nearly as many as Mr. Hixfromstix, who lives next to the bayou.

It's true that within large metropolitan population centers the suburbs have more greenery than the core of the city, but that's a pretty pedestrian observation.
posted by twoleftfeet at 2:08 AM on June 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Wow - another falsehood my Mom told me. "Money doesn't grow on trees" ... "the Stork brought you" ... "no, you don't have an older brother who is possessed by Satan and who your father and I have kept locked in the attic for 14 years now, ha ha ha, that baleful screeching is just the wind, honey".

Has my whole life been a tawdry lie?
posted by the quidnunc kid at 2:13 AM on June 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Has my whole life been a tawdry lie?

I think you should post that to AskMetafilter, because there are many helpful people there and probably one of them knows the correct answer.
posted by twoleftfeet at 2:19 AM on June 1, 2012 [9 favorites]


I was just thinking the other day, how one of the hard parts about traveling, especially in other country's is not having that sort of attuned innate background reading as to whether you might be unknowingly walking towards a high crime area and in Brooklyn I'd definitely see less trees as a bad sign. Unless it's a park or a housing project, which usually have more trees than the surrounding area and then that's a whole different set of parameters, based on the fact you're going into a self-contained area with way too many variables and unknowable areas.
posted by Skygazer at 2:39 AM on June 1, 2012


Anecdote time!

I have known several working-class people in my family who bought a house in the suburbs (of a moderately wealthy city) and promptly cut down all the trees on their lot because "they might fall on the house." By contrast, all of the middle- and upper-middle-class people I've known keep their trees, and several seem to have made mature trees a buying criterion while home-shopping.
posted by sonic meat machine at 3:33 AM on June 1, 2012 [5 favorites]


I wouldn't call Ball Square a lower income area of Somerville. It's become pretty gentrified and is almost as pricey as Davis Square (the hip part of Somerville). East Somerville around Sullivan Square is generally lower income, higher crime, and it's kind of tree-laden in parts. google maps link

Somerville's pretty big on the "tree city" concept. city web site page about trees
posted by rmd1023 at 4:15 AM on June 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


Clue: They take down trees before they build apartments and even houses. Trees don't grow that fast, so older neighborhoods have more mature trees. Much of what is more 'wealthy' is just older, as in, people had houses with small trees, and jobs with small salaries. Then they aged and got raises, and the trees grew as they grew. Then they had a good salary and mature trees on their street.
posted by Goofyy at 5:03 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


This doesn't work in Detroit, where green cover is a better predictor of abandonment than wealth. It could swear it was actually quantified by some UofM grad students using a GIS framework years ago but I can't find the paper anymore.
posted by BinGregory at 5:18 AM on June 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


Yeah, I've gotta say - Showing Ball Square seemed disingenous. Sure, there is *slightly* less money than in Cambridge; however, what it really says to me is - There are a lot of trees in Dorchester, Roxbury, West Roxbury, Mission Hill, Chelsea. Even Revere, Lynn and Lawrence have a fair number of trees.

Showing those though, might be antithetical to the cherry-picked comparisons.
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:19 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


It would seem to me that this is more a measure of relative population density and I don't think this adds much to the already large body of evidence suggesting a tight correlation between "income equality" and the size of the plot one is able to afford.

The first two photos contrast a tightly packed, unplanned urban ghetto to neatly arranged suburban streets. To my way of thinking, there are other differences in these photos suggesting "income equality" which are more obvious than the relative amount of trees, but maybe I'm reading too much into it.


I think the author would have done better to stay with the US; I think Brazil has more complex urban form and different spatial expressions of income inequality. Within the US, this probably works pretty well for a particular range of population densities. It won't work for crazy dense places like Manhattan, and as mentioned it might not work well in very rural areas (though a rich person's country estate definitely looks different than a poor person's broken down farm, and part of that will be extent of tree cover and species breakdown).

The cool thing about this is -- if it did work, for at least some population densities -- is that it should capture edge cases and places where the actual demographics don't match the expected demographics. (Gentrification and incipient decline, in other words.). The advantage of using trees as a proxy indicator of income is that there are already well-developed remote sensing tools for measuring and assessing tree cover, so you could easily implement this over huge areas at low cost.

As an aside, it's not just that poor neighborhoods are newer (they often aren't); it's that they've never received public subsidies like street tree planting, and poor neighborhoods are often built on poorer land -- living in a former marsh or on shitty fill makes it harder to grow trees, compared to the nice neighborhood built where there is good drainage, shelter from high winds, and rich soils.
posted by Forktine at 5:48 AM on June 1, 2012 [6 favorites]


The Chicago example works pretty well I think, mostly because Woodlawn is the neighborhood directly south of Hyde Park. Also from what I know the two neighborhoods mostly "grew up together" until the 1950's when changes in racial demographics on the South Side started making an impact.
posted by newg at 6:19 AM on June 1, 2012


This is the paper I was remembering, from 1996 (PDF). Page six has High Social Stress Census Tracts (areas with child poverty >50% etc) overlaid with increase in vegetation 1975-1992.

Some of the authors of that paper are referenced in a fascinating policy document for Detroit Parks & Rec. Pages 47-48 have maps showing areas of Detroit by degree of green space lining up pretty well with the hardest hit areas of the city.
posted by BinGregory at 6:20 AM on June 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


The notion of green space and class/inequality is pretty interesting but that blog post is just four examples and I'm sure it wouldn't be hard to find counter examples (as the issue of rural poverty comes up pretty easily)... even, though, if it's just limited to urban populations. I think actually figuring out ways to assess this from satellite imagery could potentially be possible, but there are so many variables that I can't imagine it would be too closely correlated. Different cities vary wildly, different ecosystems, etc.
posted by entropone at 7:07 AM on June 1, 2012


The Chicago example works pretty well I think, mostly because Woodlawn is the neighborhood directly south of Hyde Park. Also from what I know the two neighborhoods mostly "grew up together" until the 1950's when changes in racial demographics on the South Side started making an impact.

Yeah, but take a look at Wicker Park and Noble Square. Not much tree cover there. And those are fairly pricey neighborhoods. An apartment in Wicker Park probably costs more than one in Hyde Park.

Also it's important to label what date the aerial pictures were taken on, for obvious reasons.
posted by melissam at 7:17 AM on June 1, 2012


Our neighborhood doesn't fit this exactly; we are definitely lower middle-class to poor, but have lots of trees (and a sidewalk even). But then our neighborhood would probably be labeled "in decline"; it's made up of 70s starter homes that are slowly decaying, even while the trees thrive. Our neighbors tend to be hardworking Hispanic families who scraped together money to buy a small home, and a few renters like us. We're also between two much richer areas. Eventually some developer will start buying these up and build McMansions or whatever.
posted by emjaybee at 7:25 AM on June 1, 2012


BinGregory's observation about Detroit (which matches my own impressions of both Detroit and Pittsburgh) suggests that this really is functioning as a proxy for population density. In booming cities, poor folks get crowded into dense neighborhoods so the rich folks can spread out. In cities undergoing population decline, it's the poor neighborhoods that thin out the fastest.

Still, there's a huge difference in vegetation between let's say a rich neighborhood in Chicago and a poor one in Detroit. Big old stately well-groomed oaks on the one hand, shrubs and vines and tall weeds on the other. Careful landscaping definitely looks different from neglect, whether or not you can see the difference from space.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:31 AM on June 1, 2012


The first link offers some interesting thoughts and a research study apparently (since there's no clue, I couldn't look for it)

Research published a few years ago shows a tight relationship between per capita income and forest cover. The study’s authors tallied total forest cover for 210 cities over 100,000 people in the contiguous United States using the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s natural resource inventory and satellite imagery. They also gathered economic data, including income, land prices, and disposable income.

They found that for every 1 percent increase in per capita income, demand for forest cover increased by 1.76 percent. But when income dropped by the same amount, demand decreased by 1.26 percent. That’s a pretty tight correlation. The researchers reason that wealthier cities can afford more trees, both on private and public property. The well-to-do can afford larger lots, which in turn can support more trees. On the public side, cities with larger tax bases can afford to plant and maintain more trees. Given the recent problems New York City has had with its aging trees dropping limbs on unsuspecting passers-by—and the lawsuits that result—it’s no surprise that poorer cities would keep lean tree inventories.

But what disturbs me is that the study’s authors say the demand curve they see for tree cover is more typical of demand for luxury goods than necessities. That’s too bad. It’s easy to see trees as a luxury when a city can barely keep its roads and sewers in working order, but that glosses over the many benefits urban trees provide. They shade houses in the summer, reducing cooling bills. They scrub the air of pollution, especially of the particulate variety, which in many poor neighborhoods is responsible for increased asthma rates and other health problems. They also reduce stress, which has its own health benefits. Large, established trees can even fight crime.

posted by infini at 7:47 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm curious what a similar analysis of Toronto and other Canadian or European cities would show, since they tend to have wealthier cores, and the highest poverty in the outer parts of the city. Rexdale, in Toronto, has big river valleys and lots of trees, for example.

That said, if you were to compare two places both within the urban core - like the neighbouring neighbourhoods of Rosedale and St Jamestown - the poorer would be substantially less treed. Similarly, streets in the Annex (whether the old one near St George or more recently gentrified areas around Bathurst) have a lot more trees than similar streets in Parkdale or Bloordale (Dufferin & Bloor).
posted by jb at 7:55 AM on June 1, 2012


I have known several working-class people in my family who bought a house in the suburbs (of a moderately wealthy city) and promptly cut down all the trees on their lot because "they might fall on the house."

No doubt they were well-beloved by their neighbors for this act. What a way to start off your time in a neighborhood!
posted by winna at 8:00 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


This doesn't hold up very well for Washington, DC - mainly because we just have a *lot* of trees, pretty much everywhere outside of the downtown core. I live near some housing projects (between the Southwest Waterfront and Navy Yard), and they're pretty much as leafy as my old street in the (upper-middle-class) Van Ness neighborhood, and the streets of the (absolutely wealthy) Spring Valley neighborhood aren't all that much leafier.
posted by Mr. Excellent at 8:01 AM on June 1, 2012


They came to my neighborhood, which is a really poor neighborhood - I mean, we have high unemployment and crime and really hungry people - and they said that they were going to plant some trees. "It won't help you eat," they said, "but you guys are going to look really good from space."

It's a quality of life issue -- and, as infini points out in her quote, there are many benefits to having a well-treed area, like shade (so important for spending time outside), overall cooling, cleaner air, etc.
posted by jb at 8:01 AM on June 1, 2012


shrubs and vines and tall weeds on the other.


And Ailanthus! Lots and lots of Ailanthus.
posted by BinGregory at 8:28 AM on June 1, 2012


Unless it's a park or a housing project

I can't speak for other places, but the comparison does fail here, and does so precisely because certain 20th century urban planners assumed that green streets were an end in and of themselves. Many of the green splotches that dot aerial photos of New York City represent tower-in-the-park housing developments, in areas that are both literally and figuratively shady.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 8:53 AM on June 1, 2012


That's funny, Mr. Excellent. I feel like this works very well for DC. Sure, every neighborhood has trees, but the hill, and the whole residential part of NW, are essentially under full canopies. I also think this works like crazy for New Orleans.

Where I don't see it is Dallas. In the previous decade, every young professional in Dallas (and Dallas attracts a lot of young white collar workers) was in the house-flipping game, it seemed. Meanwhile, the old neighborhoods with all of the green space were in the 100-year flood plain, and were filled with small one-story homes instead of McMansions. This is far from universally true, but enough to disrupt any real correlation for that city, I'd bet.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:58 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, Ball Square is not exactly skid row, and is better as a counter-example. And there's a huge chunk of Cambridge that's just as tree-sparse, if not more so - and probably more expensive to boot.

There is a noticeable difference in how a wooded neighborhood feels, though. Last fall we moved from a similar neighborhood in Somerville to a wooded part of Cambridge, and one of the first things I noticed was OMG TREES. (Also, OMG MOSQUITOES.)
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:07 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


infini: The first link offers some interesting thoughts and a research study apparently (since there's no clue, I couldn't look for it)

The study is cited at the end of the post.
posted by stebulus at 9:23 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Can you help me find the milk in the fridge as well, please?
posted by infini at 9:24 AM on June 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


Theories like this are always in danger of missing the forest for the trees.
posted by malocchio at 9:25 AM on June 1, 2012


You can see this clearly in Calgary. Mount Royal/Elbow Park, on the right, are posh, whereas Bankview/South Calgary, on the left, are merely yuppie.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 9:38 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


BinGregory: "This doesn't work in Detroit, where green cover is a better predictor of abandonment than wealth. It could swear it was actually quantified by some UofM grad students using a GIS framework years ago but I can't find the paper anymore."

Pittsburgh is similar. Some of the worst neighborhoods look hugely green from above because of the abandoned lots full of trees and houses covered in vines. I know that in other places you actually have to encourage plants to grow and tend to them but around here the foliage is aggressive and relentless. If I didn't constantly hack back the ivy, grape vines and maple saplings, my house and garage would be enveloped by green within a couple of years.
posted by octothorpe at 9:43 AM on June 1, 2012


This is anecdotal, of course, but I grew up in a lower-class, blue-collar neighborhood, and then moved to a neighborhood in the same city somewhat higher on the income scale (lower-middle-class) when I was in my senior year of high school. The thing is, the tree cover was only slightly higher on the higher-income street.

My hometown has always cultivated an carefully crafted image of being a tree-friendly haven. Within two years of the "colony" that became Pasadena being settled, 10,000 orange and lemon trees had been planted, along with 7000 other fruit trees. The city even designated official trees to go with each thoroughfare. The historical society has tons of photos of people in the early 1900s posing beside trees -- the idea being that the trees were an oasis of shade in a warm climate, but also that the citizens were nature-lovers, preservationists, even (gasp!) tree-huggers. The city began as an advertisement for the luxury of an abundant life in a resort setting, in the midst of nature, in a place far away from the stress and the bitter winters of the Midwest -- and the handbills advertising the city prominently featured voluptuously-rendered oranges, because the city boasted orange groves everywhere you turned. And the best part was that you could easily reach that western resort by railroad.

The city itself has been planting street trees since 1907 -- lots of different varieties, camphor, sycamore, cypress, black acacia, deodars, pepper trees, walnut trees, palm trees, even some eucalyptus. The original idea was that tons of trees everywhere would improve everyone's property values. It wasn't until about 1915 the city council voted to remove oak trees from their prominent positions in the middle of city streets because motorists were always colliding with them at night.

Pasadena may be an outlier, and I know this all sounds very Magnificent Ambersons, but that's not the case. Pasadena, for example, was the first city outside the south that was compelled by court order to desegregate its public school system, which was still segregated as late as 1973 (and which has gone back into a state of de facto segregation again decades after the court order lapsed). But I don't think that Pasadena is the only city in the US to have had a history of (or to still have) some sort of energetic civic-pride "beautification" enterprise such as this.
posted by blucevalo at 9:51 AM on June 1, 2012 [3 favorites]


I used to live in the low-income Brentwood neighborhood of Washington DC. The street I lived on is a dead-end street, and a serious gas leak killed off all but one of the trees on the street (and caused who knows what other environmental damage and detrimental health effects). I requested replacement trees several times, but to little effect. One day, after a year and a half, a truck showed up with *one* new tree, but nothing since. Granted, the neighborhood had other serious problems but it would have been so easy for a politician or neighborhood representative to appear to be doing something to just plant some trees. But then again, I'm talking about DC's Ward 5, which was until recently represented by Harry "Tommy" Thomas, Jr. who is now looking at jail time for embezzling public funds and falsifying his tax returns. This story well illustrates the association between trees and the fortunes of a neighborhood.
posted by Dead Man at 10:00 AM on June 1, 2012


This reminds me that when el_lupino and I moved to Fresno and were looking for a place to live on a July weekend when it was 108 (which is not at all unusual for Fresno in July), I noticed that many trees had been brutalized by the practice of "topping" - cutting off all of the smaller branches, and sometimes cutting the tree back to nothing but the central trunk.

I had never seen this done on a widespread basis. It was as if nobody in town had ever heard of a qualified arborist. It results in an unspeakably ugly, inelegant tree, and of course encourages weak, shoot-like and weedy growth. I said to el_lupino as we drove around, "Why does a place that needs shade so badly hate trees so much?"

We lived there for almost five years, and I never really got a good sense for why topping predominated like it did, other than the fact that it predominated and thus people thought it was the right thing to do.

The Central Valley is beset by poverty all over, and I don't know if that's a total explanation for this trend, but looking at West Fresno (poorer), it's definitely more barren than North Fresno (richer).
posted by jocelmeow at 12:03 PM on June 1, 2012


My friend recently linked me to an article about how tree cover correlates to crime rates in Baltimore, irrespective of income/ruralness (and the study it was based on).
posted by jacalata at 2:00 PM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


This definitely worked in 2006 in University City/West Philadelphia/Lenapehoking/whatever they're calling it now. Six years ago I was living in an apartment there in a roommate situation that didn't work out, so I started looking for a new apartment. I walked around trying to find the line between "places I'd be willing to live" and "places I wouldn't be willing to live". It was basically the tree line.

(When I first saw this story I looked at the Google pictures of that neighborhood, though, and you can't quite tell from space.)
posted by madcaptenor at 2:47 PM on June 1, 2012


It would seem to me that this is more a measure of relative population density and I don't think this adds much to the already large body of evidence suggesting a tight correlation between "income equality" and the size of the plot one is able to afford.

I wonder if there isn't also a correlation with percentage of renters. Owners are a lot more likely to plant a tree than people who aren't invested in the property. And pay back on a new tree isreally long; even with fast growing varieties.

Looking at my city there doesn't seem to be a strong correlation and it might even be inverted. That's because the weathier neighbourhoods are up in the hills which have generally poor growing conditions (plus McMansions on small lots) compared to the poorer neighbourhoods on the flat in the valley where natural water is relatively plentiful and winter temperatures are more moderate.
posted by Mitheral at 5:20 PM on June 1, 2012


I also think this works like crazy for New Orleans.

except you'd have to avoid Katrina-impacted neighborhoods, where tree canopies were reduced by hundreds of thousands.

the comparison between old metairie and hollygrove (little canopy, despite the name) is stark, but hollygrove also flooded.

a better comparison would be the irish channel vs university areas (avoiding audubon park), areas along the river on the high ground. but those areas have been gentrifying since the 1970's.

there are other examples. right now, bywater downtown has moved almost all the low-income residents out. but the trees have not caught up. the wave of extirpation is moving toward poland ave, the trees should come in 5-10 years afterward.
posted by eustatic at 10:45 AM on June 2, 2012


Goofyy: "Clue: They take down trees before they build apartments and even houses. Trees don't grow that fast, so older neighborhoods have more mature trees. Much of what is more 'wealthy' is just older, as in, people had houses with small trees, and jobs with small salaries. Then they aged and got raises, and the trees grew as they grew. Then they had a good salary and mature trees on their street."

That presumes that poor areas only contain newer buildings. Slums rarely contain new construction, as even new apartment buildings indicate an economic upturn in the area.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:00 AM on June 3, 2012


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