Students from Benjamin E Mays IB World School in St. Paul’s historically Black Rondo neighborhood plant northern catalpa trees on Arbor Day, April 28, 2023. Credit: Andrew Hazzard | Sahan Journal

Students from Benjamin E Mays IB World School and Capitol Hill Magnet School in St. Paul’s historically Black Rondo neighborhood shoveled mounds of soil over freshly planted northern catalpa trees on a rainy Arbor Day morning Friday. The rain might have put a minor damper on the celebration, but cool, wet springs are ideal for new trees taking root. 

The trees, planted through a partnership between St. Paul Public Schools and the nonprofit organization, Great River Greening, are part of a campaign to boost tree canopy and combat the urban heat effect felt most acutely in St. Paul’s most diverse and low-income communities.

The urban heat island effect is when densely populated, developed areas with less vegetation are warmer than surrounding areas that have more tree coverage and plants. Although it’s a fairly practical issue, there are stark differences within cities between leafy neighborhoods and more industrialized spaces. 

Because wealthy neighborhoods are largely greener than poorer ones, the heat island effect disproportionately burdens low-income residents and people of color, according to an analysis by the Metropolitan Council. That leads to worse air quality, higher energy bills, and contributes to worse health outcomes, experts say. 

Planting trees in those areas is considered by forestry experts to be one of the best ways to address the issue. That’s the inspiration for Great River Greening’s campaign, called Cool St. Paul, which kicked off with the Arbor Day event and will continue this spring and into the future through community collaborations across the city.

“Lack of tree canopy is an equity, public health, and environmental issue,” said Great River Greening Executive Director Kateri Routh.

Arbor Day celebrates the climate and societal benefits of trees, and is held on the last Friday in April. Throughout Minnesota and the world, communities mark the day by planting trees and educating residents about their benefits. 

The Cool St. Paul campaign is putting special emphasis on boosting tree canopy on St. Paul Public Schools campuses across the city, especially in areas like Frogtown that have fewer trees. St. Paul Public Schools has about 3,000 trees on its 500 acres of land spread across 73 properties, said district operations director Tom Parent. The district lost about 500 trees to emerald ash borer, an invasive insect that has wreaked havoc in Minnesota and forced agencies across the country to cut down ash trees en masse. 

“We have a huge responsibility to address the urban heat effect,” Parent said. 

The Cool St. Paul campaign aims to plant 500 trees annually on St. Paul school properties and in nearby private properties over the next three years, said Routh. They are focused on the Frogtown, Dayton’s Bluff, West Seventh, West Side, North End, and Payne-Phalen neighborhoods. 

Students from the Benjamin E Mays IB School and Capitol Hill Magnet School in St. Paul’s historically Black Rondo neighborhood plant northern catalpa trees on Arbor Day, April 28, 2023. Credit: Andrew Hazzard | Sahan Journal

The group will commit to watering and caring for the trees in the first two years, which are seen as critical to helping them survive. Students will help with that maintenance during the school year. 

“There’s so many schools in this position. The kids care about the climate, and want to know what to do with it,” Routh said.  

Great River Greening received grant funding from the St. Paul and Minnesota Foundation to provide education and tree care training tips to the surrounding communities. The goal is to create a collaborative process that helps trees grow strong and gives residents a sense of ownership in the urban forest. 

“It’s not going to work if we as an environmental organization come in and say, ‘Here is what we want to do,’” Routh said. 

The city of St. Paul is planting about 2,500 trees in parks and along public streets this spring, according to city urban forestry supervisor Rachel Coyle. An additional 1,500 trees will be planted in the fall. 

The city is trying to diversify its tree canopy to prevent future invasive species from replicating the devastating effects of the emerald ash borer. The forestry department has an inventory of street trees, which makes it easier to spread out species, Coyle said. One variety that’s performed well in recent years is the Kentucky coffeetree. 

“I love them,” Coyle said. 

St. Paul’s last full tree canopy assessment was done in 2010, Coyle said, and the city wants to do a new assessment soon to get a better understanding of where to prioritize planting. But Coyle said areas around industrial neighborhoods and near downtown are known problem neighborhoods. 

A big challenge is getting trees planted on private property, Coyle said. Many residents in low-income neighborhoods are renters, and their landlords are unresponsive to calls from the city about planting trees on their properties. Coyle is hopeful partnerships with groups like Great River Greening can help address that. 

Local groups like Frogtown Green and Urban Roots in East St. Paul are also trying to fill that gap, she said. 

Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that the students planting the trees attended the Benjamin E Mays IB World School and the Capitol Hill Magnet School, which share the Rondo Education Complex campus.

Andrew Hazzard is a reporter with Sahan Journal who focuses on climate change and environmental justice issues. After starting his career in daily newspapers in Mississippi and North Dakota, Andrew returned...