Redlining and Greenspace in Durham, NC

Equitable Distribution of Urban Forests in Durham’s Historically Redlined Communities

The Vicious Cycle of Redlining and Greenspace

Urban forests offer aesthetic values and critical services, ranging from reduced energy use, improved air quality, community well-being, and increased property value. Historically, these green spaces have been concentrated in communities of wealth and prosperity, the patterns of which can be tracked back to the actions of a single federal agency almost 80 years ago. The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC), the agency responsible for refinancing home mortgages in the Post-Depression era, created lending maps of major US cities, marking neighborhoods on a sliding scale from “First Grade” to “Hazardous.” These designations, referred to as “redlining,” were often evaluated on a discriminatory basis, with neighborhoods containing a higher minority population being more likely to receive hazard designation, and thus less likely to receive loans[1].


The discrimination created pockets of social and economic inequality that reverberate still[2]. Nowhere is this more visible than in tree cover- the amount of a city covered in trees when viewed from above. According to a Duke University study, there is a 50% increase in tree cover from Hazard to First Grade neighborhoods, indicating that Hazard designations received far fewer tree plantings over the last 80 years than their First Grade counterparts[3].


As trees planted during the HOLC-era reach the end of their life expectancy, individuals have begun questioning the equity of replanting. City trees are typically replanted in the space vacated by the previous tree, so despite a city plan to replant upwards of 1600 trees a year, Durham’s tree-heavy neighborhoods will once more receive plants while the less-vegetated neighborhoods continue to watch from the wings. To compound the issue, the city of Durham has a tree budget equivalent to about 500 new plantings a year- not nearly enough to meet their goal regardless of the plantings distributions[4].


Urban forests of any kind provide benefits to the communities around them, however such benefits are currently only enjoyed by a fraction of Durham’s residents. If we want to end the cycle of redlining’s discriminatory impacts, trees are a good place to start.


Ecological Benefits

Urban trees play key ecological roles in storm water treatment, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration. Their sprawling root systems retain storm water and pull pollutants out of the soil, they increase biodiversity by providing micro-habitats for organisms, and they capture carbon from the atmosphere and store it in their roots and trunks, offsetting carbon emissions from industrial and residential sources. The latter is the most readily quantifiable, with urban trees in the US currently storing more than 770 million tons of carbon, a service valued at $14.3 billion.[5]


Property Benefits

The establishment of trees is shown to reduce energy costs for individual homeowners. According to the USDA, “The establishment of 100 million mature trees is said to save about $2 billion annually in reduced energy costs,” with trees reducing the temperature of nearby buildings and thus the cooling cost. Home and business owners with forested land can also benefit from increased property values and commercial benefits, as shoppers tend to spend more money at businesses on forested streets as opposed to barren streets.[6] Planting trees is one possible method of revitalizing the economic prosperity of Hazard neighborhoods.


Health Benefits

Public health is likewise improved by urban forests. Trees lower the temperature of the air around them and catch toxic particulate matter with their leaves, leading to better air quality for the surrounding area. Urban trees in the US remove about 784,000 tons of air pollution annually, a service valued at $3.8 billion. Neighborhoods without sufficient tree cover therefore not only lack green space, but are also subject to diminished air quality.


Perhaps most important, and least quantifiable is the impact of green space on mental health. Studies show that individuals with a view of trees from their office window are happier and more content with their life, and that patients with a green view may even recover faster from illness and injury.[7]


Previous Legislation to Address Green Space Disparities

There have been two recent congressional bills written to address green space disparities, the Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership Grant Program Act (H.R. 2943 )[8], and the Outdoors for All Act (S. 3499)[9], both killed in committee. The acts, proposed during the 115th Congress, called for the Department of the Interior to establish a grant program that would allow states matching funds in order to renovate existing outdoor recreation facilities or purchase land for new parks. While unsuccessful in congress, the bills demonstrate political interest in rectifying the gap in greenspace distribution caused in part by HOLC so long ago. Some grants for tree-planting exist at city and state levels, but they vary by location.



The ORLPGP Act and the Outdoors for All Act both demonstrate possible federal grant-based solutions to greenspace disparity. Cities with documented histories of redlining (Durham, Atlanta, Detroit, to name a few) would benefit monumentally from an act that creates a federal grant system capable of providing matching funds to city governments as trees are replanted. This is especially important in the context of Durham, where the city demonstrates significant interest in replanting, but does not have the budget to meet the city’s need[10]. Cities with neighborhoods and communities that are underserved in greenspace and have a shown history of redlining should be able to apply for federal subsidy to plant trees in those areas. Grant funding from the US Department of Agriculture or Department of the Interior would incentivize and empower cities to distribute new plantings across neighborhoods, regardless of their apparent wealth or status.

Right: 2013-2017 map of city of Durham tree plantings by HOLC zone.[11]

[1] Jan, Tracy. “Redlining Was Banned 50 Years Ago. It’s Still Hurting Minorities Today.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 28 Mar. 2018,

[2] Jan, Tracy. “Redlining Was Banned 50 Years Ago. It’s Still Hurting Minorities Today.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 28 Mar. 2018,

[3] Cooper, Gregory; Liberti, Anne; & Asch, Michael (2016). Replanting Durham’s Urban Forest. Master’s project, Duke University. Retrieved from

[4] Wise, Jim. “Durham Tree Canopy at ‘critical Juncture’.” The News & Observer. May 18, 2015. Accessed March 17, 2019.

[5] Nowak, David J, et al. “Sustaining America’s Urban Trees and Forests.” Forest Service, USDA, June 2010,

[6] Nowak, David J, et al. “Sustaining America’s Urban Trees and Forests.” Forest Service, USDA, June 2010,

[7] Nowak, David J, et al. “Sustaining America’s Urban Trees and Forests.” Forest Service, USDA, June 2010,

[8] Barragan, Nanette Diaz. “H.R.2943 – 115th Congress (2017-2018): Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership Grant Program Act.”, 27 June 2017,

[9] Harris, Kamala D. “Text – S.3499 – 115th Congress (2017-2018): Outdoors for All Act.”, 25 Sept. 2018,

[10] Wise, Jim. “Durham Tree Canopy at ‘critical Juncture’.” The News & Observer. May 18, 2015. Accessed March 17, 2019.

[11] Cooper, Gregory; Liberti, Anne; & Asch, Michael (2016). Replanting Durham’s Urban Forest. Master’s project, Duke University. Retrieved from

6 thoughts on “Redlining and Greenspace in Durham, NC

  1. I think your recommendation regarding a subsidy for cities who have had a lot of redlining in their past is really insightful! I think it would be interesting to see if that would actually help the neighborhoods and parts of the cities that have been most affected by the lack of trees and green space. For me personally, I had never looked much into the benefits of trees in cities other than reflecting on it from cities I have been to. I have enthusiastically told a lot of people after spending over a month living in Moscow, a huge city that is home to over 12 million people, just how many parks and trees there are all over the city. I definitely walked away with the impression that having parks was a priority for the city planners. The apartment that I stayed at had a forest near it that was right off of a major road. And I went to the park at least once a week, which was always a nice break from the bustling metro and other parts of the city. I wonder what residents of communities in Durham, for example, would say in regards to their access to trees and green spaces. I think that families with small children, especially, would advocate heavily for an increase in plantings in areas that do not have that.

  2. Barbara Lynn, this is so interesting! I am writing my memo 3 about urban green space and through reading this and learning about it for my memo, the benefits just keep getting clearer. While I address equity issues with urban greening, I hadn’t even thought of it through the lens of historic redlining. I couldn’t believe your statistic you cited from the Duke study about tree cover by neighborhood (well I could believe it, but was certainly not happy about it). You do a great job summarizing the numerous benefits at play. The idea you cite about consumers shopping more at streets with trees is so interesting. I’ve never even thought about this issue in that way and I’m sure I also act this way! I love your optimism at the end, when you said “the bills demonstrate political interest in rectifying the gap in greenspace distribution.” I so agree with you, but I think that projects like this have to come from the city level. While that obviously requires money that the cities may not have or may not want to spend, it feels more likely, to me, to be a bottom-up rather than top-down initiative. Great blog!

  3. I think it is interesting that it is common practice to plant new trees in the space vacated by previous trees. It is absurd to me that more thought does not go into prioritizing where are trees are planted beyond merely replacing old/dead trees. A municipality should want to maximize the benefits of planting trees with public funds instead of just replacing trees that have been disproportionately providing benefits since the HOLC-era.

    You mentioned that federal grant programs can help municipalities reach their tree planting goals by providing additional funds. While lack of funds is an important issue and can help governments plant more trees, I think in the short term cities should prioritize efforts to take a more active approach in deciding where to plant trees with their current funds. A conscious attempt to reverse discriminatory redlining through purposeful planting in certain locations can help local governments take the first step in ensuring that the benefits of urban trees are more equally distributed.

  4. This topic was eye-opening to me, as I had never been exposed to the concept of ‘redlining’ before and I did not know how deeply rooted it was in American cities. This example really shows that issues that we often just see as environmentally implicated (i.e. deforestation) are actually layered with social disparities, economic implications and historical policies. Given the many benefits of greenspace on overall health, property value and environmental structure, I wonder how greenspace can be implemented in metropolitan urban areas whose buildings make it less conducive to overall tree coverage. Obviously establishing more parks and open green spaces would be ideal, but given how expensive land can be in large cities, I wonder if it is possible to scaffold green space onto existing buildings in a way that everyone can enjoy (maybe rooftop community gardens or vertical gardens). I am not sure how this would answer the disparities outlined by the redlining example but it would be interesting to explore how greenspace can be scalable in a diverse array of settings, not just small cities and rural areas.

  5. This topic is so interesting! I also wrote about a type of environmental justice in my blog, so it is interesting to see the overlap between our two blogs. A part of transportation justice, which I wrote about, is to get people access to green space. More equitable transportation systems can do that, but, after reading your blog, it is obvious that having transportation to a green space is not as beneficial as actually living in a community with green space.

    Your blog also made me think about ‘sponge cities,’ a concept which I have become familiar with through work on climate projects in China ( They are cities which are designed to prevent flooding by integrating green spaces as a main part of the city planning. It is interesting to think about the concept of a city built completely around green space and the possible ecological benefits this type of city could provide.

  6. During Orientation Week at Duke, Rebecca Hoeffler mentioned the disproportionate tree coverage in different sections of Durham in her Sustainable Duke Orientation session. I entered this university with a newfound understanding of the unequal access to trees and greenspaces in cities, though I had never considered this before where I live in Maryland. Without access to the woods behind my suburban housing development, I would not have some of my fondest childhood memories of climbing trees and hiking in snow-covered woods and balancing on downed trees to cross rivers. I am lucky that my development backs up to woods; I had not really considered what it would be like to not have trees accessible to me.

    In a time where people are increasingly glued to screens (myself included) and people are alienated from nature in what some call “nature deficit disorder,” having access to trees where you live is increasingly important. Our conception of protecting nature tends to be wild places far from us like national parks and wildlife reserves, but it is time for us to change this understanding to be more about protecting the trees near us. This way, more money would be allocating to funding urban greenspace programs as well as the planting and maintenance of trees. It is also important to ensure that everyone has equal access to these trees that do so much good in terms of physical and mental health as well as have economic benefits. Thus, these trees need to be equitably distributed around cities especially when considering the disproportionate historic locations of trees.

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