Trying to measure income inequality? Follow the trees

A comparison of two different neighborhoods in Chicago. On the left, Hyde Park. On the right, Woodlawn. Drag the slider to see the difference in tree cover.

The Census Bureau released numbers today on poverty and income at the state level showing that more states than ever are seeing rises in income inequality. Makes you think; are there other ways besides mountains of data to measure an income gap?

Tim De Chant, senior editor of NOVA Online, thinks he may have found a way. Earlier this summer, De Chant wrote a post for his blog on a study that measured income inequality in urban areas by tree cover. De Chant thought it would be cool to see if he could actually view this income inequality... from space. 

De Chant went on Google Earth and took sky shots of affluent and low-income neighborhoods located in the same city. What he came up with made income inequality obvious in certain areas.  Below are two sky shots De Chant took of Piedmont and West Oakland.

Piedmont

 

 West Oakland

 

“West Oakland is known to have been very poor and lower class. Piedmont is a very wealthly enclave in the hills," explained De Chant in an interview with the Marketplace Morning Report. "The differences were obvious: West Oakland looked like a concrete jungle and Piedmont looked like a real jungle."

Unequal tree cover not only a U.S. Problem

De Chant pointed out that difference in tree cover is an international issue.  In his blog, he sent out a call to his readers to submit sky shots exemplifying income inequality through tree cover. He said he’s seen responses from Kenya, Spain, Mexico City and a number of other places.

Below is a comparison De Chant did of Rocinha and Zona Sul in Rio de Janeiro.

Rocinha

 

 Zona Sul

 Why is tree cover in urban areas important?

De Chant claims that wealthier cities have more money to spend on things like trees because they have larger tax bases to grow more of them.  He said another reason is that wealthier people own more land and have room to plant more trees.

People should be more concerned about the difference in tree cover between wealthy and poor urban areas, according to De Chant.  He claims there are many economic advantages to having good tree cover in an area:

  • Trees reduce stress, causing people to be happier at work.
  • Trees increase property value.
  • More tree cover can reduce a person’s cooling costs by up to 30 percent (because of the shade).
  • Areas with more trees have less pollution
  • Less pollution can mean better health

“It’s not necessarily that trees can reduce income inequality. But they can certainly raise people’s quality of life, which is something we should all be concerned about,” said De Chant.

De Chant said although there are a lot of people working on environmental issues, not enough focus is put on their contribution to income inequality.

“Something as easy as planting trees can obviously have a large effect on people’s well being and, later on down the line, their social and economic well being,” said De Chant.

About the author

John Ketchum is an assistant producer for Marketplace’s wealth & poverty desk.

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