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IU institute awarded $5 million to help disadvantaged communities expand tree canopy

For Immediate Release Sep 20, 2023

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Indiana University’s Environmental Resilience Institute has been awarded a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help disadvantaged communities in Indiana enhance their resilience to climate change through expansion of urban tree canopies.

Over five years, the project aims to spur a 20% increase in the number of Indiana cities and towns engaged in equitable planning and management of urban trees. The grant also provides funds for planting and maintaining 2,500 trees in disadvantaged communities. Partners on the project include Davey Resource Group and the Polis Center at IUPUI.

A woman holds a laptop in one arm and reaches up into green tree leaves with her other arm. IU student and McKinney Climate Fellow Ava Hartman conducts a tree canopy assessment for the city of Terre Haute in 2022. Photo by Jessica Corry, Indiana University

The funding is part of the Inflation Reduction Act’s historic $1.5 billion investment in the U.S. Forest Service’s Urban and Community Forestry program

“As climate change brings more extreme weather to the Midwest, including heavy precipitation and heat waves, urban trees offer a first line of defense to communities in the form of flood protection and temperature moderation, among other benefits,” said ERI Managing Director Sarah Mincey, an associate professor with the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs and principal investigator of the project. “Historically, these benefits have not been distributed equally, with low-income neighborhoods and communities of color less likely to have access to urban trees, leaving them much more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. We’re eager to start working with communities to build up the state’s resilience and address these inequities.”

As days of 95 degrees or higher become more common in Indiana, urban trees could significantly reduce the public health risks posed by extreme heat, especially for residents of urban neighborhoods surrounded by heat-trapping asphalt and concrete. Research has shown that tree canopy cover can reduce temperatures 11 to 19 degrees Fahrenheit compared to communities with no tree cover. Other studies have found that a few thousand street trees can intercept millions of gallons of stormwater each year, helping to alleviate the burden placed on stormwater infrastructure during heavy rains.

As part of the grant, ERI will be recruiting communities through its Resilience Cohort program, connecting them to experts and resources focused on urban green infrastructure.

Participating local governments will:

  • Work with a community engagement coach to conduct targeted outreach and gather public input.
  • Identify tree planting locations where trees can mitigate inequities and climate vulnerabilities.
  • Select desirable tree plots and species and receive training in tree planting and maintenance.
  • Publish tree canopy data to Indiana Green City Mapper, a statewide spatial database of urban green infrastructure.

In addition, each community will be supported by a McKinney Climate Fellow, an IU graduate or undergraduate student interested in sustainability career experiences. Fellows will provide additional staff capacity to local governments, leading canopy assessments, engaging community stakeholders and helping to select priority planting areas.

In 2022, a pilot version of this program assessed tree canopy for more than 245,000 acres across nine communities. After the program, these local governments used the data and resulting planting plans to update their climate action plans, obtain tree planting grants, guide city-funded planting efforts, inform local habitat studies and develop tree ordinances for future development.

“Our pilot cohort demonstrated communities recognize the tremendous benefits that urban trees provide,” Mincey said. “Expanding these benefits to underinvested neighborhoods through the efforts of IU students will not only enhance community resilience but also improve residents’ quality of life.”

Media Contact

Environmental Resilience Institute

Jonathan Hines

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