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Happier and Healthier

Urban trees and mental health in America
An American Forests Data Short
5 minute read
Erica Mixon sits on her old front porch in Detroit

Erica Mixon sits on her old front porch in Detroit. Image: Joel Clark / American Forests

As a teenager, Erica Mixon moved from her family's tree-lined neighborhood to a new house with extended family in Detroit. The new neighborhood was barren and neglected.
She felt the loss of trees deeply.
Erica Mixon

Image: Joel Clark / American Forests


“I went from tree canopies, lavish grass [and] birds to a place that… was different. Desolate. Dilapidated homes. It was hotter than where I came from. And the trees? Hiding from the sun? [You] couldn't do that. It felt lifeless. And that is not good for coping.”
Mixon's experience of the loss of trees is reflected in the science. Hundreds of studies find associations between nature exposure and psychological and physiological well-being. Experiencing nature reduces anxiety and stress, improves energy, increases mental clarity and attention, improves immune function and confers many other health benefits .
This story is also felt by many across America. With more than 70% of Americans now living in urbanized areas1, our proximity to trees and nature has diminished .

In American cities, disparities in tree cover are the norm. According to our Tree Equity Score analysis, 77% of urbanized neighborhoods in cities across America have inadequate tree cover.

Take a look at our eight most populated cities. These charts show the proportion of urbanized neighborhoods with adequate tree cover. Neighborhoods that are 100% meeting their tree canopy potential* are in green and all others in white.

 neighborhoods fully meeting tree canopy potential

*Tree canopy potential represents the maximum possible tree canopy in any given neighborhood, adjusted for feasibiity and comparability across biomes (forest, grassland and desert) and across population density levels based on targets set by the U.S. Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy.

In each of these cities, mental health complaints are higher in neighborhoods with fewer trees.

Here's how to read these charts*:



*For each urbanized area, we created five neighborhood groups based on the amount of tree cover, using quintiles. For each group, the height of blue bars corresponds to the average percentage of residents who reported mental health complaints.

Now, let's take a look at the percent difference* between areas with the most trees compared to those with the fewest. In each city, mental health complaints are highest in neighborhoods with fewer trees.

Each city looks a bit different, likely due to variability in patterns of tree cover and poor mental health.

*calaculated as percent change

Our eight largest cities are not unique. We ran the numbers on all 150,000+ urbanized neighborhoods in the contiguous United States and found the same trend. All across America, mental health complaints tend to be higher in areas with fewer trees.

Aerial view of Baltimore, Maryland

Where the treeline ends in Detroit. Image: Ann Millspaugh / Flickr

Mixon's story — like so many urban Americans' — is one where health and wellness, nature access, poverty and economic opportunity are deeply interconnected.
Those hit hardest by mental health challenges are more likely to be people of color, low-income and grappling with physical health issues — and are also more likely to live where there are the fewest trees.
Aerial view of Baltimore, Maryland

Aerial view of Baltimore. Image: Chuck Fazio / American Forests

Trees are more than scenery for our cities. They are critical, life-saving infrastructure that every person in every neighborhood deserves.

“[People] need life. They need hope. Sometimes in our haste [of busy schedules], you don't understand how much that willow tree may bring you joy, or the bird that chirps and wakes you up lets you know that you're alive. When you are able to make those connections with your mental health, with your attitude, with your outlook on life, it makes a difference."

"It can cause a shift," Mixon says.
Tree-lined neighborhood in West Philadelphia

Tree-lined neighborhood in West Philadelphia. Image: Koren Martin / American Forests

Tree Equity means trees in every part of every city. It means having enough trees so all people experience the health, economic and other benefits that trees provide.
You can help create Tree Equity in cities across America. Get started today.
Learn More
Tree Equity Score is a free, human-centered, decision-making tool for urban tree plantings used by urban foresters, land-use planners, government officials, neighborhood organizations and many others.

Help make the case for investment in neighborhoods with the greatest need across America using a single, nationwide, neighborhood-level score. Learn more at TreeEquityScore.org .
Today, Mixon is a Community Advocate at Central Detroit Christian Community Development, a faith-based non-profit committed to empowering people and transforming the community. Watch Mixon's full interview .
Methods
American Forests' Tree Equity Score is an analysis of urbanized neighborhoods, where neighborhoods are defined as Census block groups, and urbanized areas are defined by the Census Bureau as “densely developed territory… encompass[ing] residential, commercial, and other non-residential urban land uses.” Over 70% of the U.S. population resides in urbanized neighborhoods (Tree Equity Score, 2022).
Data for self-reported poor mental health were derived from the Center for Disease Control CDC PLACES . One-meter resolution tree canopy cover for all urbanized areas in the United States was provided by EarthDefine .
American Forests examined Tree Equity Score Census-block-group-level data for patterns in urban tree canopy and mental health. Block groups were ranked in quintiles by tree canopy cover. The average percent of the population self-reporting poor mental health was calculated for each tree canopy cover rank for all Census block groups in urbanized areas across America and for the eight largest metro areas. Similarly, block groups were ranked in quintiles by percent people of color (all people who are non-white, non-Hispanic), by percent of the population in poverty (population with income less than 200% of federal poverty level), by unemployment rate and by percent of the population reporting poor physical health, asthma and coronary heart disease. For each ranking, the average percent of the population self-reporting poor mental health was calculated across all Census block groups in urbanized areas.
Data
Tree Equity Score, 2022.
Credits
Article and visuals by Julia Twichell.

This American Forests data short was made possible by funding from

All content © 2022 American Forests. Please acknowledge American Forests in the use and distribution of this product. Learn more about American Forests at americanforests.org .
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Tree canopy data provided
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