Income inequality can be seen from space

How? It's surprisingly simple. Turns out, demand for trees in neighborhoods behaves a lot like a luxury item, as opposed to a basic necessity.

Tim De Chant at The Per Square Mile blog wrote about research on this a couple of weeks ago. Then, he went out and found examples, using images from Google Earth.

Research published a few years ago shows a tight relationship between per capita income and forest cover.

...They found that for every 1 percent increase in per capita income, demand for forest cover increased by 1.76 percent. But when income dropped by the same amount, demand decreased by 1.26 percent. That’s a pretty tight correlation. The researchers reason that wealthier cities can afford more trees, both on private and public property. The well-to-do can afford larger lots, which in turn can support more trees. On the public side, cities with larger tax bases can afford to plant and maintain more trees.

The trouble, as De Chant points out, is that the disparity here is about more than aesthetics. It's about air quality, cooling effects in the summer, and documented impacts on stress, crime, and quality of life. It's also interesting because it seems to go against the stereotype of wealthy suburbs where all vegetation has been eliminated in favor of houses.

That's Houston's Fourth Ward above, and River Oaks neighborhood below. But De Chant found satellite examples all over the United States, as well as in South America and China.

Read about the research on trees and income inequality

See more photos of neighborhood comparisons

Via Steve Easterbrook


  1. I’m having 6 trees chopped down in my backyard.  I hope that doesn’t make me look like a poor person…

    1. You could just print out a big picture of them and leave it in your garden; Google Maps probably won’t be able to spot the difference.

    1. Up to a point, for 2 reasons :
      1) The easy availability of air/sat photography meant tax collection agencies started to use it as a lifestyle (or fraud) indicator despite the fact that
      2) They became cheaper and cheaper to build, leading to democratization of swimming pools and the loss of their status symbol

      That lead the moderately wealthy to avoid them (favoring landscaping), and the really wealthy to either go toward the “natural” pool trend, or avoid them completely, going as far as removing existing ones.

      Nowadays pools are a status symbol of lower middle-classes, or vacation homes to rent.

      1. Exactly, the more wealthy people I know don’t have pools, they go to their lake homes.

  2. It’s also interesting because it seems to go against the stereotype of wealthy suburbs where all vegetation has been eliminated in favor of houses.

    Well, they cut down the trees to build the subdivision, but then the residents grow new ones.  We forget that today’s established, pleasantly woody subdivision is yesteryear’s scorched-earth, new subdivision.

    1. Or they are 50 year old subdivisions built by contractors and builders who cared somewhat.  The neighborhood I grew up in was like that.  Built by a father and son team who left many of the 75+ year old oaks and larger maples intact. 

      I actually live in a historic downtown area and the trees here can not be taken down unless the city approves it.  On my little (or rather large by lots standards) .25 acre lot I have three trees that are probably 100+ years old and approaching 3 foot in diameter.

      But on current subdivisions…yeah scorched earth and replant sucks.

      1. The County of Los Angeles has an Oak Tree Ordinance – any Oak with a trunk larger than 6 inches in diameter must be left in place and protected.  California has a number of native Oak species, and they tend to like to grow on rolling hillsides/grasslands, and riparian zones.  Which, in California, is that pricier mountainside/canyon real estate.

        1. I wish L.A. County protected trees other than oaks. My landlord went scorched-earth a few months ago and slaughtered all the shade trees that have gently graced my duplex since I moved in 15 years ago, providing shade and habitat for me and the multitudinous creatures that lurk on the property. Mere eucalyptus, rubber and kurrajong trees, unfortunately… they dropped leaves which require occasional sweeping, so out they went. I wept for days when they murdered the Seussy fig tree in the front yard to put in a platform for the trash barrels. I think I like trees more than people, sometimes. Most of the time, actually. 

          1.  That might have been due to a city ordinance, actually. Some areas a now requiring trees like eucalyptus to be removed because of the huge fire hazard they present.

      2. The reality most of the time is probably somewhere in the middle.  I used to live in the south bay area – Silicon Valley – and where all our old houses stood there were once apricot and plum trees.  Some of the trees were still standing, most of course were not.  I had one of each, apricot in front, plum out back along the fence.  I gave the cots to the kids next door, not a big fan of those.. :)

    1.  mr_frakypants – sometimes the twain do meet.  having worked with landscape architects for many years, reviewed landscape budgets for public and private projects, and in some cases drawn them up myself, i can tell you for a fact that more money in your hood = more trees.

    2. Yeah I was just kind of thinking that. I live in an old  not-so-rich area with a lot of trees because… time and no landscaping means wild trees grow in yards. There’s no HOA, no city involvement really, and so trees have just grown around everywhere (including one I can’t afford to get taken out that is growing into the side of our house) 

      People here, we just never cut trees down unless they’re going to fall on us and even then some times people can’t afford to and just let them fall :/ One family has been cutting down the same tree for about two years now, bit by bit, after it died. But I wouldn’t call this affluent. Also, since there’s a flood plain, there’s land that can’t be built on meaning if you look from space you’ll see LOTS of trees and water too. Must be paradise! And so close to the city!  Hehehe… actually landscape wise it’s pretty nice. But also, no streetlights means it is not very safe at night (it really isn’t). I think the key here maybe is landscaping. More intentional landscaping = more money. But… um… yeah!

      All that being said, I LOVE trees and would hate this place if we didn’t have them around. It’s just that they aren’t really indicating so much wealth as they are the fact that this land was a forest once and wants to be a forest again some day.

  3. In my relatively poor neighborhood in Oakland, my neighbors actively discourage the city from planting trees in front of their houses. 

    1. Been there. You get stuck with the maintenance cost for the city trees on your land. My parents had to pay to fix the sidewalk when the  city-tree root broke it, after they hadn’t been allowed to have the root cut because it was a city tree.

      1.  Yes, I think that’s a big part of it. It’s a shame, because it keeps the neighborhood looking spare and dirty when only a few houses on the block have trees in front of them. We had the city plant one (which they screwed up, but a friend helped us fix that), and planted a maple of our own in the yard.

        Cross the border into Berkeley, just a couple of blocks away, and things are much different.

    2.  I guess I’m bringing down the tone of the neighbourhood – as much as I appreciate the beauty of the trees around our house, I kind of wish one of them would get up and move to our neighbours’ place.

      I’ve got a vegetable garden that doesn’t get enough sun.  The neighbour has a featureless green lawn that they never seem to use much.

  4. Here’s an interesting exception.  In Palm Springs, the areas to the left of the ‘A’ are in the mountainside/canyon zone and are much, much pricier than the areas to the right, which are in the flats.  But the pricier areas are less green because they’re more likely to have desert landscaping and boulders surrounding individual homes.  The flats have more homes and condo complexes with rolling lawns and non-desert trees.

    1.  Antonius – In California, the mountainside/canyon zone is always the pricier real estate.  In Palm Springs, that does tend to correlate with more desert landscaping, likely because the owners of those properties have more money to spend on individually landscaping their homes. You would probably see something similar in wealthier neighborhoods in Arizona too.  You do see big puddles of green all over the Coachella Valley, though, from the many, many golf courses and the expensive homes that border them.

      1. It does not cost more to have desert landscaping in Arizona (or any desert). It costs substantially less. There the problem is Eastern (and Michigan and Minnesota and…) transplants wanting all their trees and shrubs from home (and allergies)
        Mesquite and Palo Verde trees ftw!

  5. Houston is a very good example of this – it’s an effect easily visible from the ground.  Conversely, the presence of large and well-maintained trees also acts as a goad to redevelopment here.  The Montrose and Heights neighborhoods were partly attractive due to the age and expansiveness of the greenery – on top of originally being cheap neighborhoods near interesting parts of town.  

  6. This makes sense. When I was looking to buy a home, the areas without trees sketched me out. I ended up buying in a somewhat low-income neighborhood, but one that is lined with ash trees. It just felt … safer.

  7. Hmm… dunno… pretty much trees and forests around any areas here in my country, Finland. I don’t really think it correllates here.

    1. Yeah, I tried it with Madison, WI and it doesn’t work. In fact there are large acres of trees in the poorer neighborhood’s. Although I’ve always suspected they were kept there to act as a buffer between rich and poor neighborhoods.

      1. Yea, but there are still differences between different areas… not as much as, say, in the US, but still…

        It’s really about this being a sparsely populated country. We don’t have miles and miles of nothing but suburbia. Put for instance “Espoo, Finland, Nokia” to zoom in on Nokia headquaters. Espoo is the second largest city in Finland (Helsinki, the largest, is directly east from where you zoomed in). What you see is… green! Lots and lots of forests and trees.

        One of the most expensive, and affluent, areas in the country are just to the southwest of the area you zoomed to (Westend & Haukilahti). Going west along the coast you can’t really see from the areal picture which areas are the more affluent and less ones. From ground level… yes, you can see from what type of houses there are and how they look, but not from the amount of trees.

  8. Wangari Maathi’s work implies that the relationship can be reversed – people who plant trees are working towards success, wealth and happiness, while people who won’t are sinking into a cycle of aimlessness, despair and poverty.

    Plant trees!

    1.  I remember reading somewhere, years ago, about Italians in World War II who stopped planting and tending their olive trees, because they didn’t think their sons would be around to inherit them…

  9. Where I grew up, trees hindered the LAPD helicopters from seeing you. Life is just tough sledding all the way around.

  10. If you’re interested in quantifying urban nature, I’ve created a website that does just that– .  You can search for your address, and even put a badge on your own website listing the score of a property you’re selling / renting.

    I only have data for Seattle and San Francisco currently, but with enough donors can expand to other cities! 

  11. I noticed this looking at the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic on Google Earth a few years back; in that case it is mainly due to resource utilization policy, but it is interesting to see.

  12. Comparing River Oaks (which I believe is one of the wealthiest zip codes in the nation) where every house is basically an estate on a large multiple acre plot of land (and in a warm and humid climate that supports significant amount of flora) with an inner city neighborhood that is famous for its densely packed row houses (also sometimes referred to as “shotgun houses”), most of which have incredibly small front yards (if any yard at all) is probably not very instructive, and verges on the ridiculous. Sort of like comparing Beverely Hills to a seedy apartment complex, or comparing the quality of life of those with Jeff Koons balloon animal sculptures, to those without them.

  13. It reminds me of line from ‘The Planter’s Daughter’ by the Irish poet Austin Clarke

    “For the house of the planterIs known by the trees.”Planter in this instance were wealthy settlers who came over to Ireland from the UK during our colonial past. Natives had so little land that they couldn’t ‘waste’ any bit of it not planting food crops. 

    1. It does seem to, actually, just with a few confounding factors. It does seem that street trees, rooftop gardens, and proximity to parks all seem to have some correlation to income. (Which is odd, because the city will plant street trees anywhere if a resident requests them and its physically possible.) However, density variation, the fact that low income housing complexes were designed with loads of green space, and the constant shifts in gentrification (which greenification would lag behind) throw off the clear picture.

  14. A very clear example is in Montreal where L’Acadie boulevard divides the low income Parc Extension neighborhood from the very upscale Town of Mount Royal. TMR has a fence all along the road to keep the riff-raff out,  nice.

  15. As Neil Gaiman said, “They name it after whatever they bulldozed to built it on top of.”  So achingly true here in the UK, where everything was something interesting once.

  16. If you liver in a rental, you tend not to plant trees — as opposed to someone who owns the property.

    Perhaps this is revealing the visible differences between ownership and rentals

  17. I reckon each tree is worth about 50k of actual value on the simple basis that the streets with trees are extremely desirable and those without trees are awful places to live. Most people will agree one street is better than another, but they won’t know why. It’s the trees. 

    You can can look at a plane of concrete, or you can watch hundreds of leaves twisting in the wind, forming complex ripples across the tree like a rolling fire. Ironically, the one generating enormous amounts of complexity and stimulation is actually relaxing, and the one generating a geometric shape with a texture is experienced as boring and stressful. 

    I think the article underplays the values of trees. Class or wealth is a distraction. Designing for suitable living is everything. Trees are fundamental.

  18. In Minneapolis 20 years ago, if you looked down from a plane in summer, all you could see was trees, except for a few square blocks in the downtown area. Not that way now – because of Dutch Elm disease. The city has replanted with other species as much as it could – poor areas as well as rich – but trees take time.

  19. Doesn’t work where I live – Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.  Our area, and the ones a bit closer to downtown even more so, are mainly working-class, have above-average crime rates, far above-average visible homelessness, and lots of beautiful mature trees.

    The rich folks mainly live out in neighbourhoods that were planted in wheat ten years ago – there are trees there, but they’re little spindly things.

  20. Doesn’t apply where I live.  Most of the top level wealthy do have trees all over their property (which tends to be large and overlook the water).  Most of the middles seem to have big houses on clearcut land with tiny trees.  Some of us have older houses with a few trees, and I personally have a couple small trees but a forest behind my house as well as across the street.

  21. Here in the deep south, trees are frequently found in poorer neighborhoods, and many newer ones in the burbs are what are lacking. Locally, though, the most visible indicator of income are bicycle lanes. We have a large population for whom bicycling is the only means of transportation (working poor), yet those areas have a clear lack of bicycle lanes. Meanwhile, the more affluent areas, where most of the bicycling is recreational, have wonderful, and frequently wide, bicycle lanes. 
    A few years back I noted that a major city bus terminus in our city, which is located far in front of a large shopping mall, edge of the parking lot, and has plenty of bicycle racks; we also have a “Bikes on Buses” program here as well. But, getting to the terminus is dangerous, as it sits at the intersection of two major roads, there is a lack of bicycle lanes to it, and pedestrian traffic is not even a consideration due to a dangerous lack of sidewalks. This shopping mall and terminus are between two major working and lower middle class areas.
    But, hey, at least they have the bicycle racks.

  22. Here in Fort Lauderdale, I’ve noticed the same thing, only seasonally, with grass/lawns: lush green grass =  affluent, dry yellow grass = not so much. During the dry season, which runs from November to April, those who want to water their lawns have two options: use municipal tap water (an expensive proposition) or pay someone to dig a well and install/maintain a pump and sprinkler system (also expensive). Those who cannot afford either option (or who don’t care) have yellow grass in the winter. Google Earth shows it clearly, of course, but it is every bit as evident when you drive around town.

  23. I own a house in west philadelphia in a low income neighborhood but moved in with my husband in a relatively affluent mainline suburb outside of philly.  Just today I was thinking this very thing that the moment I crossed the city line into the burbs there is an explosion of green otherwise lacking in the cement townhousing tenements of most of philly… even gentrifying spaces of philly are still relatively nude (south philly, northern liberties and so on) because the townhouses were originally built by planners who wanted to cram as many houses into an acre as possible to the sale prices they would have gotten for them.  My house in west philly was blazing hot in the summer and since moving to the burbs a mere one mile from the city line, my mornings are now birdsong and not cars booming, ambulances sirening and people screaming at each other at all times of day and night. I have to say my peace of mind and ease of rest is much better outside the city. From my experience this correlation would be apt.

  24. Sacramento, California used to give trees to any resident who wanted them. At one point the city had more trees than were there originally. 

    Some of its more expensive suburbs, which came along recently, have not seen its trees mature yet, and this would  skew the results in any growing area.

    My parents’ 40 yr old suburb is wonderfully forested with some original live oaks as well as trees planted by residents. However, as the foliage filled in, the crime level and social status of the residents got worse.  It is still a nice suburb, but not what it was before growth caught up with it.

  25. Huh. I’ve been using Google Maps to spot neighborhoods with trees so I’ll know where to get a hotel pretty much since google maps with satellite view came out. Never get a hotel where there ain’t no trees. 

  26. I’m in a kind of poor subdivision in a kind of poor town, but people have a very negative view of this area. I don’t know what they base it on. I’ve never seen much happen around here, but there are typically one to two trees on every person’s boulevard and a few trees in our front and back yards. Some of them very large. This is a city with a reputation for section 8 housing and very inept/corrupt government officials but we have lots of trees!

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