Portland foresters are hoping to one day make their city as green as Los Angeles or New York City

That’s right. Portland, oft-hailed as America’s most eco-friendly city, has less tree coverage than the city of sprawling freeways and the one nicknamed the concrete jungle.

“When we look at the actual coverage, we are not very green,” said Jenn Cairo, a forester with Portland Parks and Recreation. “We’re less green than New York or Los Angeles.”

“But we could be much greener,” she added.

This fall, the parks bureau will try to make the city a little more verdant by handing out free yard trees and hosting a tree planting event in honor of Arbor Day, a holiday intended to encourage tree growth. Though traditionally celebrated in April, the bureau said it’s moving the celebration to the wetter, more sapling-friendly month of October.

The city is hopeful many of the 750 trees it’s giving away will take root east of the Willamette River, where the tree canopy cover is only 21%. That means a bird’s-eye view of the city’s east side would show about a fifth of the region covered in green. The west side has double that (triple if you count Forest Park).

Pittock Mansion is a short walk off the Wildwood Trail's second leg and provides a tremendous view of Portland and Mount Hood.

Pittock Mansion is a short walk off the Wildwood Trail’s second leg and provides a tremendous view of Portland and Mount Hood.

Bradley W. Parks/OPB

Cairo said it’s not a coincidence that the spottiest parts of the tree canopy overlap with some of Portland’s poorest neighborhoods. 

“Tree canopy tracks very closely with income level,” she said. “Historically, where neighborhoods have had lower-income levels — typically communities of color, immigrant and refugee communities — there are historically far fewer trees and lower quality trees.”

A report by the bureau last winter found income and tree canopy highly correlated, with the discrepancy between east and west rooted in “the process and timing of annexation, lack of public investment, development, and other historic factors.”

A dearth of trees means hot days feel hotter. Flooding is more intense. And Cairo said the air quality is likely worse, though she wasn’t aware of any studies that have looked into the matter.

“It’s a well recognized pattern that air quality is better in areas that have more and healthier tree canopy than areas that have deficient tree canopy,” she said. “It’s a known fact.”

In the city’s ideal scenario, tree canopy would cover a little more than half of both sides of the city. That means 1.3 million new trees.

They won’t grow overnight. But Cairo said she’s hopeful the fall giveaway will be a significant start.

“We could make a lot of progress addressing this persistent decades-old inequity in services to residents,” she said.

The department’s three giveaways will take place in east Portland on Oct. 19, Nov. 2 and Nov. 16. The department’s community tree planting event is this Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon in Northeast Portland’s East Holladay Park.