Income and the Urban Forest in Dallas

I read on Mashable today about some folks who look at the relationship between trees and money. They’ve found that Google Maps can reveal definitive lines of income inequality. Says Mashable:

Tim De Chant discovered this phenomenon last month. De Chant is a journalist and ecologist who writes about population density and urbanization on his blog, Per Square Mile. He came across a March 2008 study that showed a correlation between tree density and income in urban areas. According to the authors of the study, who surveyed 210 U.S. cities with populations greater than 100,000 people, when the population’s average income increases in a given area, the demand for trees also increases. Therefore, wealthier neighborhoods often have denser tree cover than poorer areas, making the tree a luxurious commodity.

The Mashable story shows screen grabs from Google wherein you can clearly see poor and wealthy neighborhoods in various cities, just by the tree canopy. So I figured I’d have a look at three Dallas neighborhoods from space. Have a look at the tree coverage of Highland Park, West Plano, and South Dallas:

Highland Park (Dallas Country Club in upper right)
Highland Park (Dallas Country Club in upper right)
South Dallas (SM Wright in lower left, Oakland Cemetary upper right)
South Dallas (SM Wright in lower left, Oakland Cemetary upper right)
West Plano (Spring Creek Pkway at top, Carpenter Middle School center)
West Plano (Spring Creek Pkwy at top, Carpenter Middle School center)

What to make of these images? It seems clear that Highland Park, the wealthiest of the three neighborhoods, has the most trees. But South Dallas (the poorest) looks to be leafier than West Plano (middle income). (These screen grabs were all taken from the same elevation, as it were.)

Here’s my theory: back in the day, North Texas used to be nearly all grassland. Most of the trees you see here were planted. Highland Park and South Dallas are older than West Plano, so they planted their trees first, and they’ve had more time to mature. Until someone comes up with a better theory, that’s the one I’m sticking with.

13 comments on “Income and the Urban Forest in Dallas

  1. This Marxist analysis is quite simplistic. Lots of variables, some of which are weather (rain, extreme cold and heat) and geology (soil composition, grade, creeks, springs, etc.), city planning (lot density, street width), pre urban use of the area, tree upkeep and home upkeep (sprinklers).

    Parts of Dallas naturally support trees without sprinkler use (there are underground springs and streams, many covered by concrete). Easy to see this in the gentrifying neighborhoods where the original owners occupy, who are now in their 70s and 80s. Some part of Dallas have shallow soil atop the limestone, some have deep soil.

    That’s a start. I’ve always been curious about those parts of Dallas that naturally support good tree activity, as the heavily treed areas of Dallas do seem to be much more tolerable in the summertime; perhaps this is a good place to share those thoughts.

  2. Areas such as Plano were developed differently. Unforuntately, modern master plan community development calls simply for clear cutting and area, completing construction, and then replanting fast growing trees such as Bradford Pears or Crepe Myrtles. The new Baylor Hospital in McKinney is a perfect example. They clear cut forested land, built the hospital and a tank for the concrete water runoff, and then planted small, immature trees around the perimeter.

  3. This is one argument I always bring up with my wife when she mentions moving to the suburbs. Currently, we live in the Park Cities. Sure, we could save a bunch of money, and actually own and instead of rent, if we moved to the Northern suburbs, but all those neighborhoods up north are so ugly with the barren landscape. I’m from East Texas originally and I’m accustomed to being surrounded by trees. I need the comfort the trees provide. You get north of 635 and there are no trees, only tall shrubs.

  4. Maybe a better example would be neighborhoods built at the exact same time. Like the late 1950′s saw a building boom of ranch style homes in Preston Hollow north of Walnut Hill, south of Royal, west of Hillcrest. Compare that area with some of the 1950s neighborhoods in Richardson around US75 and Beltline. Compare those with homes built in Pleasant Grove around Masters Dr.

    Take a drive in South Dallas sometime, down Park Row and/or South Blvd. Big trees, big lawns, big houses.

  5. But note where the house and lawn are left fallow, dependent on the area, the lot with either turn into a forest or a burnt-desert.

  6. Lakewood Proper- bounded by Abrams, Mockingbird, Gaston and White Rock Lake, is probably the largest contiguous area in the Metroplex without a stop light or major street. And it’s all under a lush canopy of trees.

  7. West Plano was mostly farmland before it was developed. There was corn growing across the street from Plano Hospital in the 1970′s. Some old perimeter and farm drive trees did exist, but no significant cover. Developers never do pay attention to saving trees, and many homeowners don’t really know what to plant.

  8. A map-loving FBvian tells us:

    This link shows the Highland Park view c1930
    http://digitalcollections.smu.edu/cdm4/item_viewer.php?CISOROOT=/dmp&CISOPTR=53

    This link shows the South Dallas view same time period. Oakland Cemetery is in the upper right corner
    http://digitalcollections.smu.edu/cdm4/item_viewer.php?CISOROOT=/dmp&CISOPTR=177

    Finally, on this website you can type in an address and compare different time periods
    http://historicaerials.com/

    That last one is really cool. Check it out.

  9. Tim and Tim, I observed something similar to this some time ago, though the ecologist may not like the observations. Consider the arguments AGAINST urban sprawl by those on the political Left. And then go up in your typical 10-15 story building in the D/FW area generally inside the loops (820 in FW, 635 in Dallas). Look out in pretty much any direction at the tree cover. Then consider as researcher Tim stated that the center of the Metroplex is older and more established–thus enjoys great tree cover. In fact, our urban forest is quite substantial and would pretty much not exist if North Dallas were still cotton fields.

    The simple explanation of tree coverage in Oak Cliff is that prior to Plano being developed, prior to white flight to North Dallas, Oak Cliff was an established community that enjoyed significant tree cover 50+ years ago. When Anglos departed for North Dallas and the suburbs, the trees stayed put. But what might be interesting to consider would be the HEALTH of all those trees in the overhead photos. I’d be willing to bet HP’s are immaculate. West Plano, where there are any, would be as well. Oak Cliff? Spotty. Many have been fire bombed (literally) or severely neglected by tenants of rental properties whose houses have been allowed to fall into sub-code disrepair and demolished. No tenants means no damage to trees. But that same overhead of Oak Cliff would reveal a decimated real estate market were it from Oakland Cemetary NORTH into Fair Park and the Cedars instead of South. Further interesting considerations.

    Good discussion item, but needs some refinement in purpose, thesis and analysis. ;-)

  10. “This is one argument I always bring up with my wife when she mentions moving to the suburbs. Currently we live in the Park Cities…”

    Hate to break this to you, Josh, but you already live in the burbiest burb of them all.

  11. As a builder and developer, I can tell you the correlation identified in this article is there but fairly weak. When new homes are built in lower-priced areas, builders seek to eliminate unnecessary costs, such as landscaping and trees, so many ‘cheap’ homes of ~50 years ago, had no trees in the yard. Beginning in the ’70s and ’80s, most cities (including Plano and Dallas) started requiring every new single-family home to have 3 trees (min. 2″ caliper, or trunk thickness at ~36″ high) planted to pass inspection. So that started increasing the number of trees planted across the entire city. If an ‘original’ tree dies, the new homeowner is not required to replace it, but they generally take care of them as most everyone likes trees in their yard. Most of those who had no trees eventually planted some, while other folks planted more. Sure, that is partially a function of the resident-owners’ income level, but also, renters don’t plant trees. Trees are relatively inexpensive to put in (~$100 for a nice one DIY), but add significantly to the value of the home over time ($?)
    Another component is the availability of sprinkler systems as what kills trees in Texas summers is extreme heat and drought. So, wealthier areas are more likely to have sprinklers which help trees survive but also to grow lushly and make it easier to plant additional trees in the future.
    There are a number of factors involved, such as age of the trees, age of the neighborhood, soil conditions, etc., so wealth of the owners is only one part of that assessment/correlation.