A volunteer with the Yale-affiliated community forestry organization Urban Resources Initiative (URI) and prison reentry organization EMERGE finishes planting a tree in a New Haven neighborhood that is subject to extreme summer heat and minimal tree canopy. Ayannah Brown / Connecticut Public

Gov. Ned Lamont visited New Haven Monday to promote a bill that, if passed, would ask cities to have at least 5% of their total area covered by trees. He watched as a local tree planting crew set a tree on a freshly dug sidewalk on Monday.

More trees would bring different benefits to New Haven, according to Lamont.

“We’re bringing back the city the way it was. I know what it means environmentally, I know what it means in terms of shade, and I know what it means in terms of beauty,” Lamont said.

But more trees won’t just mean a prettier city. It could also help with combatting the effects of climate change and even reduce health disparities in neighborhoods that lack the same tree cover that wealthier neighborhoods enjoy. If passed, the bill would impact municipalities throughout the state and would also benefit locals, according to advocates.

One of them is Colleen Murphy-Dunning, the director at the Urban Resources Initiative at Yale University. She looked on as the crew, working for Emerge CT, which helps formerly incarcerated prisoners get jobs, finished planting the tree.

The bill would benefit New Haven residents, she said.

“I think it would create resources for more tree planting to happen and more job creation to happen,” Murphy-Dunning said.

The city of New Haven applied for over $80,000 in federal and state grants over the last two years to support urban forestry programs, according to the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. But the bill would also address an urban phenomenon called the heat island effect, where certain locations in a city experience higher temperatures compared to other areas. The effect could be caused by building materials, roads or other infrastructure absorbing and reflecting the sun.

As a result, heat islands can have a negative impact on health outcomes in a neighborhood that doesn’t have as many trees as another. Summer heat waves are worsened by heat islands, and the elderly, children and those in poor health are more susceptible to heat stroke, which can be deadly.

According to DEEP, the Hill neighborhood where Lamont traveled to only has 16% of its area covered by a tree canopy. Advocates say wealthier neighborhoods in cities often have many more trees.

More trees would mean more shade and could be a respite for residents in the summer. But New Haven is already seeing the impact of an urban canopy, and it’s not just environmental.

Michael Byrd dug a hole with a shovel as other members of the crew planted the tree on Asylum Street. They planted a Caucasian Linden tree. He said it’s a good tree for the city because the tree doesn’t grow too high and interfere with power lines.

Byrd said he along with his crew already planted 23 trees, which reflects a tangible accomplishment to him.

“When I drive by one, I can point to my mother and sister and say, ‘I did that,’” Byrd said.

The bill is currently awaiting action from the state Senate.

This story was first published April 17, 2023 by Connecticut Public.