Opinion | Defending Nature Is a Form of Social Justice
NASHVILLE — Two good things happened here recently that I didn’t see coming. First, our Metro Council passed a bill, which Mayor John Cooper signed, that increases protections for trees on city land. Second, the proposal for an outrageously terrible subdivision in Whites Creek, one of the few remaining rural tracts of Davidson Country, was rejected by the Metro Planning Commission.
Positive as the recent environmental news here may be, small-scale victories like these don’t normally rise to the level of national attention. But as a measure of what is possible, they have given me more hope for the future than I’ve had in a long time.
That’s because these particular environmental wins were not the result of lawsuits or transfers of political power. They were the result of widespread and nonpartisan public outcry. And they tell us of what can happen in any city, anywhere, when people start recognizing trees as a kind of civic infrastructure and the natural world as a public good.
The new tree ordinance is the result of more than two years of work by the Nashville Tree Conservation Corps. This effort began in response to the city’s decision, back in 2019, to allow the National Football League to cut down 21 mature cherry trees, in full bloom on Nashville streets, to make room for a lurid stage from which the league planned to conduct its annual draft.
When word got around, a great hue and cry rose up from Nashvillians who were sick and tired of city officials sacrificing municipal treasures on the altar of “progress.” The city backed down, redesigning plans so that the stage affected only 10 trees, and digging up those to replant elsewhere.
The effort to suppress environmentally unsound development in Whites Creek has been in the works even longer than the new tree legislation; every time residents managed to defeat one effort, developers came back with a slightly altered proposal, and residents were forced to mobilize again. These tireless neighbors, aware that dense development increases the risk of severe flooding, demolishes wildlife habitat, and raises temperatures, will apparently keep fighting to preserve this tiny swatch of rural Nashville as often as it takes.
Both cases represent far more than a Not-in-My-Backyard attempt to suppress, or at least relocate, the inevitable. Trees absorb rainwater, prevent soil erosion, filter greenhouse gases from the air, cool the surrounding area, provide both habitat and food for wildlife, and improve the quality of life for human beings. Trees are also at the center of efforts to promote environmental justice within cities by making their allocation of green space more equitable. For now, it’s still possible to measure the relative wealth of an urban neighborhood simply by counting its trees.
From 2008 to 2016, Davidson County lost the equivalent of 918 acres of trees, approximately 13 percent of our tree canopy. Even in this age of profound climate disruption, when a community’s tree canopy is directly related to its climate resilience, nobody knows how many trees have been lost in the last five years. Nobody has counted.
Chances are, you’ve become at least a little bit worried about deforestation. You’re probably aware of the role forests in general play in protecting global biodiversity, and of the role the Amazon basin specifically plays in stabilizing the global climate. The idea that the Amazon is being burned to the ground to turn the rain forest into fields for cattle grazing — cattle destined to become hamburgers — likely strikes you as the kind of moral abomination that might as well be called a mortal sin.
It can be overwhelming to consider the magnitude of the obstacles involved in protecting the world’s forests, especially when those forests are being felled because human beings have need of timber, or grazing land, or homesites, or cornfields. We certainly have the power to stop eating imported beef, but many of the world’s remaining forests exist in places far beyond the reach of political or economic pressure by ordinary Americans.
What is definitely within our reach is the kind of activism the people of Nashville have begun to show in protecting the urban forest: establishing mechanisms to monitor the health of trees, to protect as many as possible, to replace those that cannot be saved, to halt environmentally unsustainable growth. We still have a long, long way to go — there are no regulations here that protect trees on private property, for example — but there are signs now that many in this community understand the risks we face as the climate calamity unfolds. Residents are finally summoning the will to preserve what they can, and if construction-besotted Nashville can do that, any city can do it.
Urban green space plays a less profound role than great forests in limiting temperature rise, it’s true, but it plays an outsize role in protecting communities from the worst effects of a changing climate. “Trees are, quite simply, the most effective strategy, technology, we have to guard against heat in cities,” Brian Stone Jr., a professor of environmental planning at the Georgia Institute of Technology, told the Times reporter Catrin Einhorn.
Next Saturday is National Public Lands Day, a chance for Americans to participate in cleanup, trail maintenance and awareness-raising efforts at our treasured national parks, forests and marine estuaries, among other public lands. The celebration is particularly apt this year, as the pandemic reminds us again and again of how crucial natural areas are as safe places to gather, or as a source of solitude, quiet and calm.
With any luck it will also remind us that such places were not saved from development by accident. It took enormous political will to create them. It will also take enormous political will to preserve and enlarge them.
Here in the United States we have spent decades wringing our hands about deforestation in the developing world, despite having done an incredibly poor job of managing our own old-growth lands. Now is the time to protect what’s left of the forests here at home, including the pocket parks and urban trees that cool our concrete jungles. The future of the planet depends, in part, on every tree we can save.
Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss” and “Graceland, At Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South.”
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