It is well documented that Salt Lake City’s air quality problem disproportionately affects West Side communities, and given the high likelihood of additional pollution originating in the Northwest Quadrant if the state’s Inland Port is built, the city needs to do everything it can to protect itself and its residents. We need to take more control of the quality of our air.
We need to reduce the amount of pollution we put into the air by getting to all-renewable energy from Rocky Mountain Power faster, expanding access to public transit options, getting more cars off the road, and transitioning to electric vehicles.
We also need to increase the amount of pollution we take out of the air. A single large tree is capable of removing 10 pounds of air pollution in a year. That same large tree can absorb the carbon dioxide of a car driven 500 miles, and generate 260 pounds of oxygen annually.
A look at a map of city-owned trees tells reveals a staggering inequity and an obvious path forward. The Salt Lake City Department of Parks and Public Lands has determined there is space in the city for at least 25,000 new trees across the city. It’s not hard to figure out where the majority would go.
As mayor, Erin Mendenhall will plant at least 1,000 new trees on the city’s West Side per year starting with her first budget, in addition to the annual replacement of around 1,200 trees citywide. Last year, the city removed 1,179 dead or hazardous trees and planted only 1,174 new trees.
Mendenhall will also promote the expanded planting of trees on privately owned property, campaigning to educate residents on the profound value trees offer not just for the air above them, but the property below.
Since air does not respect municipal boundaries, Mendenhall will explore partnerships with other mayors in the valley to encourage similar tree-planting surges in those communities to improve regional air quality.
More trees mean less air pollution, more oxygen being generated, lower heating costs in the winter, and lower air-conditioning bills in the summer. Trees have also been proven to increase property values, lower crime rates, and generally beautify neighborhoods.
The current administration tried to cut funding for the urban forestry program, and this year — as it has in previous years — the City Council added funding to make sure it could continue its maintenance and replacement program. Erin even added funding so the department could hire two additional employees to help the department keep up with the workload.
To help pay for the new trees, Mendenhall’s administration will urgently begin pursuit of federal and non-profit grants. It will also partner with local philanthropies, businesses, and other partners to make the greening of the West side a true community project.
The trees we plant now will be a true investment in Salt Lake City’s future. They are a small step — alongside expanded access to economic opportunity, a more diverse and sustainable array of housing options, and better transit and transportation options — toward a more equitable future on the West side.
The 4,000 trees planted on the West side by the end of Mendenhall’s first term as mayor will grow to take 40,000 pounds of pollution out of the air and generate 1,040,000 pounds of new oxygen every year. They could also save West side residents a combined $172,000 in annual heating and cooling costs, while having the combined cooling effect of 40,000 room-sized air conditioners chilling our neighborhoods each year.