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July 26, 2021

If trees could talk, Vrinda Mathur, MID Industrial Design 2022

by mathurvrinda

If trees could talk, Vrinda Mathur, MID Industrial Design, 2022


I remember the young girl who leapt across puddles on a rainy day, she climbed trees to pick fresh mulberries, swung on the monkey bars, and jumped over concrete parapets too. As children, our association with the natural environment is a strong one but, how often do we see ourselves interacting with a fresh flower bloom or the whistling leaves as adults? How often have we mindlessly walked along an arid path with a tree stumped down to half? Have we questioned why that tree stands without its supporting limbs; Branches, stems, and leaves?

Anecdotes from a conversation with self

These conversations I had with myself led me on to explore the relationship between urban forestry and the need for increased public engagement towards land restoration efforts. I started working on Treeggered as part of my graduate studio in the spring of 2021.

From the archives, a guerilla experiment conducted at Blackstone Park to encourage participation from the viewers in rebuilding forgotten trees

Through the Maharam Fellowship, I am collaborating with Social Enterprise Greenhouse (SEG) A Providence-based non-profit organization to expand its presence in the realm of environmental and social justice through increased outreach and community engagement initiatives. My research is focused on understanding how the changing climate exacerbates existing inequities for frontline communities (members of low-income/BIPOC communities) in the state of Rhode Island. 

My interest in urban ecology and social justice issues opened my eyes to the warps and wefts of both these topics. 

According to American Forests, a national non-profit conservation organization, “trees across the U.S. absorb 17.4 million tons of air pollutants, preventing 670,000 cases of asthma and other acute respiratory symptoms annually.” Conversely, places that lack tree canopy also tend to be the poorest, the hardest hit by the impacts of the climate crisis, and the most urbanized, making tree access a social justice one as well.

A recent article I read states that in 92% of the urbanized areas surveyed, low-income blocks had less tree cover than high-income blocks. On average, low-income blocks had 15.2% less tree cover and were 1.5⁰C hotter than high-income blocks.

I spent the first few weeks of my fellowship creating a network of stakeholders I could interact with in order to gain on the ground information about tree canopy and the tree equity score. For everybody new to this, as was I until a few weeks ago, a tree equity score is a tool that analyzes map data across different neighborhoods including information on existing tree canopy, population density, income, employment, surface temperature, race, age, and health. “These metrics are combined into a single score between 0 and 100. A score of 100 means that a neighborhood has achieved Tree Equity.” 3

Tree Canopy Equity via American Forests

Over the next few weeks I will be working closely with the Washington Park Neighborhood Association and local Providence tree planting organizations to investigate the factors that contribute to low tree canopy scores and their correlation to historic redlining, systemic racism and governance. I will be using a two pronged approach to the movement through my skills in art, design and systems thinking. The first, to raise awareness amongst the communities who are directly impacted by low tree canopy. The second to enable them to find a voice in the dialogue surrounding climate change and its impact on health, wellbeing and other environmental issues.

More on the how in my next blog. Until then, I am leaving you with a link to the Climate Justice Plan drafted by the City of Providence. Might I also recommend the book ‘Rising’ by Elizabeth Rush, a memoir about climate change traversing through different cities in the United States.


1 https://www.ecori.org/social-justice-archive/2020/11/20/tree-inequity-in-rhode-island-is-stark

2 https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0249715

3 https://treeequityscore.org/

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