A student prepares a tree for planting at Tree Pittsburgh's One Tree Per Child planting event at Arsenal Middle School. The organization leads the Pittsburgh Canopy Alliance, a coalition of environmental organizations that aims to restore the region's tree canopy. Photo courtesy of Tree Pittsburgh.

Allegheny County loses about 2% of its tree canopy every five years, but a $9 million federal grant aims to reverse the trend, particularly in disadvantaged communities.

The grant comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service’s Urban and Community Forestry program. Authorized under the Inflation Reduction Act, the program awarded $1.5 billion to efforts across the U.S. The investments will fund 385 projects nationwide over the next five years that address tree planting and maintenance, wood utilization, workforce development, extreme heat mitigation, restoration and resilience strategies, and community planning.

The City of Pittsburgh will receive $1 million to mitigate urban heat islands — areas of the city that experience higher temperatures due to reduced vegetation and hard, dry surfaces like parking lots and buildings. Urban heat islands can cause increased energy consumption, higher levels of pollutants and heat-related illnesses.

The city will use the money to remove trees that pose a falling hazard, install new trees and create usable natural areas in targeted communities.

The bulk of the money — $8 million — will support the Pittsburgh Canopy Alliance  — a coalition of about 20 environmental organizations working to increase the tree canopy in Allegheny County.

Tree Pittsburgh leads the effort, which began in 2020 with the goal of helping to plant 100,000 trees within 12 years — as part of then-Mayor Bill Peduto’s resilience plan. 

Trees line a street on the North Side. The City of Pittsburgh saw a net gain of 4 acres of trees in 2020, when the Pittsburgh Canopy Alliance began. Allegheny County lost more than 4,000 acres that year. Photo by Ethan Woodfill.

“When we launched in 2020, nobody was counting trees,” Tree Pittsburgh Executive Director Danielle Crumrine says. “We would never know if we hit 100,000. We started to collect data together using Lidar satellite imagery and working with Davey Resource Group to look at the canopy and look for trends.”

They made two important findings. In 2020, there was continued tree canopy loss across the county — more than 4,000 acres —  but the first net gain ever — 4 acres — in the City of Pittsburgh. Urban tree canopy is a measurement that encompasses the leaves, branches and stems of trees that shelter the ground when viewed from above.

“It was small, but it was a win and we were going to take it because we’d been working really hard,” Crumrine says. “When you drill down to the neighborhood level, we were excited to see gains in neighborhoods like Manchester and Lawrenceville — neighborhoods that are really low canopy.”

Partners in the initiative are Allegheny GoatScape, Allegheny County Conservation District, Allegheny Land Trust, Friends of the Riverfront, Landforce, Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. 

The grant-funded efforts must focus on Justice 40 areas — areas that experience environmental injustices. The federal government has a Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool that shows communities across the country that are disadvantaged economically and environmentally. 

Redlining in the 1930s caused disinvestment in neighborhoods across the country, causing some neighborhoods in the city to have a small tree canopy. Road and housing construction also caused tree cover loss. 

“You have no place to put trees because you have all of this infrastructure,” Crumrine says. “At this point, everyone’s there to right the wrongs of the past and look at policies that are perpetuating it.”

More neighborhood tree cover is associated with better overall health, including lowered risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and asthma. 

A student plants a tree as part of a One Tree Per Child planting event at Arsenal Middle School. The Pittsburgh Canopy Alliance will receive $8 million over the next five years to address the region’s declining tree canopy. Mitigation strategies include parks and green space tree plantings, tree maintenance,and technical support to municipalities. Photo courtesy of Tree Pittsburgh.

The Alliance will focus on several main priorities.

  • Streets and right of ways: Western Pennsylvania Conservancy will take the lead on street trees, and Friends of the Riverfront will do trail plantings. Tree Pittsburgh will take the lead on maintenance, hiring professional tree companies to take out trees at risk of falling and prune existing trees. 
  • Parks and green spaces: Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy will aid this effort. Landforce, the Student Conservation Association and Allegheny GoatScape will help prepare sites to plant. 
  • Institutions and private property: Foresters will work with property managers to get trees in the ground in places like college campuses, churches and homes. Residential parcels lost 3,781 acres between 2015 and 2020. This initiative also has money allotted for 10,000 trees for Allegheny County residents in Justice 40 areas.
  • Countywide: There is a bucket of money for tree plantings outside of the city in distressed areas.
  • Municipal technical support: This will allow the Allegheny County Conservation District to provide technical support for municipalities to develop tree protection ordinances and climate action planning. 
  • Allegheny Land Trust will do some planting at Girtys Run in Millvale and the Churchill Valley Greenway along the Parkway East.

“The hope is that this sets a new standard for investments in urban forestry,” Crumrine says. “There were over $6 billion in proposals that were not funded. That goes to show that there’s this huge gap out there in need.”

A Pittsburgh native, Ethan is a freelance journalist interested in telling the stories of people doing great things to build community and sustainability. Ethan served as Editor-in-Chief of Allegheny College's newspaper, The Campus.