There is perhaps no better example of just how much historical injustices affect our communities today, than the reality of residents living in disenfranchised communities throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Being forced to stay home in a low-income neighborhood looks much different than “working remotely” from a higher-income home or neighborhood. In this lockdown situation, the stark differences in the physical environment of low-income neighborhoods made this a very different, and much more difficult, experience.
The stay-at-home orders were clear; unless you were an essential worker, traveling for necessities or emergencies, you were to stay at home except when exercising outdoors (which was encouraged). But in communities like Hunting Park, where summer days can be up to 22 degrees hotter than the rest of the city, and there is an acute lack of green spaces available to residents and tree canopy to shade the neighborhood, one cannot help but ask: How can anybody possibly be expected to do that in this weather? To make matters worse, low-income residents do not have air conditioning at the same levels as their higher income counterparts, to make the indoors more livable; and those that do, struggle to pay the higher utility bills that accompany more extreme heat. Being “privileged” enough to have an air conditioner in the first place, brings its own unique difficulties and disadvantages in the form of unaffordable bills.
With few places available for people to walk outdoors with enough shade and cooler temperatures, and a lack of trees in residential areas, the effects of this level of isolation are magnified. From those suffering from mental health concerns to senior citizens that didn’t have family to support, and beyond, low-income residents suffer while on lockdown. The extreme heat, and inability to leave the house, also affects the sense of community that residents feel with their neighbors. While some restrictions have lifted and people are able to enjoy a bit more freedom and security with available vaccinations, we must now also continue to push for initiatives that help beautify our communities and bring us together. How else do neighbors knows to check up on seniors on their blocks, or the single person living alone who hasn’t spoken to anyone in months? Beyond health-specific issues, how can residents take a stand when they see their blocks slowly gentrifying if they’ve never had a conversation with their fellow neighbors? Green, shady spaces offer more than just a place for exercise or an escape from the house during the extreme summer heat; they create the spaces and the opportunities for residents to engage with one another and form bonds that make them stronger.
Moving forward with the remnants of this pandemic still lingering, we must think about community health from a much broader perspective than just rates of infection, mortality, vaccination, and so on. While these are important, we must also consider the effect of environment during quarantine, and how it may worsen both short and long-term suffering. Where we live, our homes and surrounding physical environments, help determine our chances of staying healthy – physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially – during a worldwide crisis. We must address this reality in low-income neighborhoods before times of crisis hit. Planting trees helps address temperature, air quality, cleanliness, and beautification; in turn increasing community gathering, opportunities for exercise, and reduced stress levels; leading to lower rates of chronic disease, less burden on the healthcare system and families’ finances, greater safety and economic activity, and countless other benefits. This season – a season of the holidays, the pandemic, and climate change – perhaps the most powerful thing we can do is plant a tree.