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How to Spot Income Inequality From Space? Count the Trees

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One tree in a million in New York City

Tree tagged in Brooklyn as part of New York City's "One in a million" tree program.

The poet Joyce Kilmer once wrote: “I think that I shall never see. A poem lovely as a tree.” Trees in urban settings are more than just lovely, they actually clean the air, reduce noise pollution, reduce the need for air conditioning in the summer and work against the greenhouse effect. They even reduce stress. And according to blogger Tim De Chant, they also prove to be a good indicator of income inequality as viewed from space.

A few weeks ago De Chant wrote in his blog, Per Square Mile, about a research paper he had come across that presented some interesting findings. De Chant explained it in his post:

“[F]or 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.”

It got De Chant thinking about whether it would be possible to actually see income inequality from space. So he did some googling. And he found that not only was it very easy to spot in cities across the United States, it was also evident in cities around the globe. See for yourself. The first image of each set is the lower income neighborhood.

Oakland, CA

West Oakland

Piedmont

Chicago, IL

Woodlawn

Hyde Park

You can see more images from Boston, Houston, Beijing and Rio de Janeiro on De Chant’s blog post or look up neighborhoods in your own city using Google maps.

De Chant points out that the differences weren’t as stark in U.S. cities with tree programs in place, such as New York City which is working to double its number of trees to 1 million in ten years. Chicago has planted over 600,000 in the last 20 years (although De Chant notes that number may include replacement trees) and London is planting 20,000 new trees for the Olympics.

De Chant asked readers to send him pictures of their cities. We emailed him to see what kind of response he’s received. He writes:

“I was surprised at first by the enormity of the response, but after thinking about it, it makes sense. Income inequality is typically an amorphous concept, not something that can be easily visualized. Tree cover in cities, on the other hand, is immediately recognizable. That allows people to go to Google maps and, with the knowledge they have of their own city, pick out neighborhoods that are rich or poor and see if the trend holds in their city. And for most people I’ve heard from, it has.

I’ve literally received hundreds of emails and comments from people pointing out income inequality in their own city. People from around the world. There will of course always be outliers, but I think this has really struck a nerve because it’s income inequality laid bare, in people’s own cities.”

9th Ward, New Orleans

Ninth Ward, New Orleans, LA

There was, however, one countertrend. De Chant observes that extreme poverty and and extreme wealth often look the same from space.

“[P]arts of Detroit or New Orleans that have been through really tough times have reverted back to more greenery. As houses have been torn down, the land has returned to a wilder state, ironically making it appear in satellite photos to be more similar to wealthy areas than poor ones. Vegetation and income inequality run on a circular spectrum, I guess, with areas of extreme poverty nearly indistinguishable in satellite photos from areas of extreme wealth.”

Share your images with us on Flickr by tagging them “tree income inequality.”

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  • Dillard Jenkins

    Trees require precipitation, and most of the Southwest has received very much this past years and wildfires are raging all over in that region at this time. Praying for rain doesn’t work so it will be awhile before any help arrives from the sky.

  • Dillard Jenkins

    Opps, that should have read the Southwest has not received very much this past year.

  • AgTip

    My town, Missoula, MT, has a lot of trees.  In the spring and summer it is beautiful.  There ARE differences, sure enough, and the place where the dearth of trees is most easily noticed is in the poorer sections of town.

  • Wewhites

    The Greening of Detroit has also been helping the urban areas of Detroit from looking blighted.
    “The Greening plants over 4,000 trees annually in different neighborhoods
    within Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park. They also work with
    community groups to turn deteriorated vacant land into beautiful
    greenspaces, pocket parks, and tree nurseries.”

  • Donopeg

    Very interesting never paid much attention.

  • Anonymous

    Trees are, obviously, good. However, Bill Moyers could find inequality in the distribution of cowpies… and would recommend a tax and vastly greater empowerment of Government to “rectify” it… thereby making everyone poorer. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=767807145 Kurt Michael Friese

    So does the converse work?  If we plant more trees with incomes rise and disparities decrease?

  • http://www.facebook.com/suzy.lebaron Suzy LeBaron

    I don’t agree that the wealthier communities have more trees. I live in northern Illinois. In a town that is broke because all the industries have left.  Most of the houses here are quite old, so most have established trees in their yards.  My house is over 80yrs old, and I love my old trees.  If you google this area you cant see the houses through the trees.
    The neighboring towns with their high priced houses are on lots where they cut down all the trees.  The owners plant their own trees, but they are like twigs and it will be many years before they are as beautiful as the ones in this depressed area.

  • Kendra Purscell

    I feel like this article completely overlooks rural areas. There are places in Appalachia where almost everyone has a low income, and yet the entire region is covered in trees….

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1434973605 Shana Smith

    I too live in Missoula, I have lived in Chicago and agree that while I never took notice before, it does seem to be true.  However when you travel outside urban areas, I can see how this wouldn’t necessarily hold up.  Montana’s covered with trees, but we aint exactly a financially thriving state.

  • Rxwatson

    take a satelite of haiti and compare it ti its next door neighbors you will see the difference

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/75DOWU7DZ5BS5LNCWA5WAVNERY Henry B.

     I suggest breathing through your nose more often, to get some more oxygen to your brain.

  • Cory

    She makes a great point… You probably just couldn’t understand what she’s saying.  Maybe you should follow your advice?

  • BmPsyd

    Reading comprehension is the key here:

    “The researchers reason that wealthier *cities* can afford more trees… …On the public side, *cities* with larger tax bases can afford to plant and maintain more trees…. he found that not only was it very easy to spot in *cities* across the United States, it was also evident in *cities* around the globe.”

  • morrigan

    From the end of the article:

    “Vegetation and income inequality run on a circular spectrum, I guess, with areas of extreme poverty nearly indistinguishable in satellite photos from areas of extreme wealth.” 

    Perhaps those rural areas are  included in those areas of extreme poerty.

  • Anonymous

    I suppose the correlation is really a little more complex, depending on local factors. Austin, TX, had a lot more trees 20 years ago when it was a small city and a cheap place to live. Now, high-dollar development downtown is claiming trees — there’s currently a fight over the city’s decision to allow Trammell Crow to bypass the Heritage Tree Ordinance — and in old neighborhoods with lovely trees, they’re scraping wooded lots to replace little cottages with million-dollar McMansions and enormous condos. People with high incomes are displacing the working and middle classes as well as the trees.

  • TG13

    the main problem with this, is that Google *adds* trees and foliage to the satellite pictures.. 

  • Ltuckercameron

    Except for the strip mines…

  • Trickster Goddess

    Richer neighbourhoods have larger yards and thus more space for growing trees.

  • Anonymous

    One word, Hispaniola. Check that out via satellite.

  • Aurajamin

    Three words, plant more trees.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_F7INJQ36ICKTEHLWPYXBP6Z6UE Walter F

    It’s interesting how close Hyde Park and Woodlawn are to each other in Chicago.

  • Mechteld

    Chernobyl has been taken back by Nature.

  • Anonymous

    What is the point?  A lack of trees causes crime, poverty, dropouts, teen pregnancy, welfare and bad schools.  
    Want more trees?  Stay in school and learn.  Get a job and become a good employee.  Don’t have children while still a child.  Obey the law.

  • Anonymous

    Spot on.  Liberals talk of income inequality to support their distain for people  who are successful that they don’t like.  If the people liberals like have huge incomes that is ok:  trial lawyers, actors, musicians, athletes, politicians  etc.,  but only if they are liberal.  Any dubiously made connection between between income and inequality is based on the liberal view of the world.  Trying to create a connection between trees and inequality is more liberal conjuring.  What are they going to say when people start cutting trees to heat their homes because of the liberal attacks on energy.

  • Daviddalgleish

    Seems to apply well to cities, but some of our poorest areas in the country have plenty of trees (Kentucky, Tennessee, etc.) 

  • PAMELA HAMER

    ‘richness’ is not a financial reward…..’

  • coelecanth5

    In Vallejo, San Francisco & San Diego (CA), in Taos (NM) and Tuscon (AZ), in Green Bay (WIS), in Rochester (NY), in in Italy, in Canada, in Mexico, in Germany, in France, in any African country, in any Asian country, in Pacific Islands—ALL Around The World:  from above, you can tell where the money IS and ISN’T.

     Indeed TREES can make the neighborhood; the LACK of TREES can break the neighborhood.  Though not the one and only answer to our human problems, trees are often truly a simple yet effective sign of how one’s own neighborhood is doing.

  • http://www.billmoyers.com Theresa Riley

    Hi Kendra,

    It does completely overlook rural areas. The research and the correlation only had to do with urban areas. 

  • Anonymous

     Liberals talk of income inequality to support their distain (sic) for people  who are successful that they don’t like.

    Horse hockey.

    Give it a rest old man and change the channel.

    Best,

    D

  • Anonymous

     I don’t agree that the wealthier communities have more trees.

    You’ll want to write the scientific community then. They’ll want to be corrected by you.

    It is well-established that wealthier areas have more trees and higher plant diversity.

    Best,

    D

  • Leda

    Interesting post! De Chant makes a great point about the power of visualizing a concept as abstract as income inequality. 

    I write a blog about green infrastructure (www.deeproot.com/blog). Would you be willing to grant permission to reprint this point? Of course I would credit it however you specify.

  • http://www.billmoyers.com Theresa Riley

    Yes! Please do. Just link to this story and mention that that it appeared on BillMoyers.com first. Thanks!

  • Leda

    Thanks very much!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sharon-Moore/1178146924 Sharon Moore

    I didn’t know that Kilmer was blind. Other than that, this is a intriguing new way of looking at income equality. No wonder I love to be surrounded by trees; I was born to be rich! 

  • http://twitter.com/shoudaknown J.L. Henshaw

    There’s a lot more that one can see from space than this.   These areas focused on also have pavement, and you can map the growth of pavement encroaching on fertile land, as cities are commonly surrounded by shrinking farm lands these days…

  • Rschumack

    A person in my old (fancy) neighborhood was very proudly telling me at our block party that she had a 75 year old white pine in front her house cut down because the resident woodpecker’s noise irritated her.  Some of the people in my current (poor)neighborhood refused free trees planted in front of their houses  because they don’t want to deal with raking the leaves.  It is not only poverty that determines the amount of trees , it is also ignorance and creature comfort (you don’t have to rake your air conditioner and the poison the lawn service sprays will kill anything but the water guzzling turf).  We need solid, practical environmental education in our schools.

  • http://www.facebook.com/edward.j.kirby Edward Kirby
  • Byard Pidgeon

    I live part time in 2 cities in Oregon. One is a small city in south central Oregon, and the other is a medium size city in the Willamette Valley. The small city is well below state average in most demographic categories, while the mid size city is above in most.
    However, in both cities one would be very hard pressed to determine which are the poor or wealthy areas by the amount of trees…in both, many of the newer, upscale residential areas are tree-poor, while the poorer areas are tree-rich.
    No, it’s not because of rain. Central Oregon is arid.

    I

  • Carmen

    This is very interesting, but of course is really only applicable to urban areas. Nothing wrong with that, except that it ignores the extreme poverty that can be found in rural areas such as Central Appalachia and the Deep South, where there are plenty of trees, but not nearly enough jobs that pay a decent wage. Not all poverty is visible from space, but it is quite clear when you encounter it up close.

  • Smitchelle

    What sort of twist and spin will the earth worshipping heathens think of next ?  God is going to destroy this earth and create a new and perfect one-just like this earth was before the fruit of knowledge was eaten.

  • Anonymous

    The irony of this is that because the poor areas get so devastated by the drop in the values of land, more house’s end up torn down and the land reverts to a semi-wild state.  Meanwhile in the rich areas, there are a certain amount of real estate that ends up being turned over to the towns for conservation land.  This is because a certain amount of rich people end up with no heirs and turns their properties into parks and museums.  I spend my week ends in parks and areas that used to be rich people’s homes.  Like Larz Anderson in Brookline. Larz Anderson was an estate, but the owners were childless and bequeathed it to the town of Brookline years ago. Wellesley College was started by the Hunnewell’s.  Then there is the park on the Natick border of Wellesley that also used to belong to the Hunnewell’s.   On my vacations, I have spent time on a former Dupont Estate in Pennsylvania. Then there’s the place in Myrtle beach that used to be a rich industrialist’s summer escape.  Then of course in Newport, I have been inside a few of the former mansions of the rich.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think that trees MAKE a neighborhood; rather, they are INDICATIVE of a neighborhood’s income and education status. Educated people tend to want trees, rich people can afford them. Trees “make” a neighborhood only in that they lead to a feeling of community, and increase property value (thereby being self-perpetuating).

  • Anonymous

    See the last paragraph in the story.

  • Anonymous

    Your neighborhood is an exception to the observed rule.  It’s poor, but so far has been neither abandoned nor paved over. May it have many years ahead of it, and I hope it survives to become the grand part of town it deserves to be!

  • Anonymous

    A couple of points:

    1. Nowhere does the article say that disparity in trees *causes* income inequality.  It says that it is a visible *indicator* of income inequality.

    2. The article clearly is talking only about cities, and it also states that communities of extreme poverty look “wealthy” from a satellite view because homes have been abandoned and reclaimed by nature.

    Read the whole article before criticizing!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1642330769 Barb Shillinger

    This is very interesting! Thank you for posting this.

  • chuck halbertson

     EXCEPT where “economic development” shows its face: i.e., strip malls, concrete slab crap, and asphalt parking lots to hell and back. “Country”, even in Appalachia, where I happen to live, is a lost art, a lost concept for life, a lost human and natural dimension.

  • jusayin

    I don’t recall details but I understood that at some point in time the city of Los Angeles went through poorer neighborhoods (south central) and specifically removed trees which stood on public property (the sidewalk medians) in order to make it easier for the helicopters (‘ghetto birds’) to track criminals in those areas. Of course this means less shade/hotter temps in those neighborhoods in the summer, as well as the loss of other benefits trees provide.

  • http://www.facebook.com/whoisrobertpope Robert Pope

    I think that’s just about the DUMBEST thing I’ve ever heard – fracking christians who don’t give a crap about the earth because da Jeezus is comin’!  

  • http://twitter.com/LanguageSurfer Sandra Aponte Salaza

    Why would they do this? What do they gain from this practice.

  • http://twitter.com/LanguageSurfer Sandra Aponte Salaza

    Last year I had the privilege visiting a remote village near Santa Ana, El Salvador. Esquipulas (not to be confused with its namesake in Guatemala) has no more than 70 homes with no sewage, no running water, no Internet, no phone, etc. It is literally hidden under an enormous canopy of trees. You cannot spot it with Google Earth, even if you knew where to look, but I can assure you it is there.

  • http://twitter.com/LanguageSurfer Sandra Aponte Salaza

    My comment is not meant to criticize this post, but perhaps to clarify that the inequality that is visible by counting trees is best described as “urban inequality”.

  • Dbyerly1

    it’s interesting that you mention how the growth of cities encroaches on fertile land. it made me think of something i read awhile ago in the chicago tribune.  i live in the west suburbs about thirty miles from chicago, and found that suburban sprawl is expanding west about nine to ten miles each year. i wonder if that’s true or similar with other metropolitan areas around the US.  comments anyone?

  • Ihopemydie

    What I find interesting is that liberals are sooo quick to talk about ‘income inequality’, but how many have a home…of any kind, but have never invited a homeless person to come and live with them.  Would they not be considered ‘rich’ to someone who has nothing but the clothes on their back.  They seem to find fault with every person who has made a conscious decision to get an education, not be a baby making factory beginning at age 13, and not use the excuse that they are poor to rise above their circumstances.  I was as poor as a church mouse growing up, but that never caused me to believe that I could not make a comfortable living.  And PLEASE do not say that if you are black that you can’t do this….their are many blacks who grew up with nothing but made a decision to rise above their circumstances who are now doctors, attorneys, teachers, politicians…and every other occupation.  Making excuses and laziness is what keeps people in the tough circumstances they think rich people never went through

  • Abigail

    No doubt trees are critical to the environment. Last week Clear Channel Outdoor advertising cut a 15 ft. tree down on a tree lawn – just so everyone could see their forty foot high billboard.  And the city arborist gave them permission.  Any thoughts on trees and billboards???

  • Anonymous

    I would bet that those mature trees were planted during the post war prosperity era, when your community was generally more well to do than it is today. You could pretty easily find out how old the trees are, then check for median family income during the years when they were planted.

  • Ninit

    Worst stupid bigot!