Helping Justice Take Root

In Manchester, New Hampshire, trees serve as a stark symbol of environmental and climate injustice.

By Laurie O'Reilly

A trip down Manchester’s Beech Street reveals a sad irony about its tree-inspired name: The farther south on Beech you travel, the fewer trees you’ll see. The same holds true of Chestnut, Elm, Pine, and Maple streets. 

The unofficial dividing line in the city – Bridge Street – is perhaps more aptly named. North of Bridge, you’ll find neighborhoods filled with single-family houses. Trees here are not only abundant but also tall, lush, and decades old. South of Bridge, the cityscape changes to one of industrial buildings and multifamily homes. Trees are more sparse and smaller, with fewer leaves filling their canopies.

The problem here isn’t just one of aesthetics, says Arnold Mikolo, CLF’s environmental justice advocate in New Hampshire. “They help to prevent chronic health issues such as asthma and heart disease, especially during heat waves. They create shade that helps communities save money on energy costs. Trees even have a calming effect on drivers, so they tend not to speed.”

In our warming world, trees are critical for dealing with climate impacts. They especially help to alleviate “heat islands” – urbanized areas that endure higher temperatures because their roads, buildings, and other infrastructure absorb, rather than reflect, the sun’s heat. 

It’s no coincidence that the people living with the least tree cover in Manchester (and nationwide) have lower incomes and tend to be people of color and immigrants who speak limited English. “It comes down to wealth. It comes down to money,” says Mikolo. “You’re a homeowner, so having trees in your yard is a no-brainer, right?” 

But those living in Manchester’s lower-income neighborhoods – who are more likely to rent than to own a home – tend to view the lack of trees as the norm. And the health consequences, too. “These residents carry the environmental impact of that as a burden. And that’s what environmental justice – or, really, injustice – is,” says Mikolo.

Addressing such injustice lies at the heart of Mikolo’s work in Manchester. He joined CLF as a community organizer two years ago to help build an environmental justice movement in the city – one in which change happens from the ground up. 

He initially spent his time simply listening so he could learn what issues residents worry about the most and hear their ideas for solutions. “Community neighbors are the experts on the matters affecting them,” he says. 

Mikolo also reached out to business owners of color and local nonprofits and attended community events. Soon he had a dozen community members eager to serve as an advisory group for his work. 

Mikolo and his volunteer advisors then prioritized an interconnected set of issues and created volunteer action teams to tackle them. The lack of tree cover, for example, ties into broader concerns residents raised about air pollution and how the city’s streets are designed in the first place. 

top: North of Bridge Street, trees line both sides of a street, providing abundant shade in a neighborhood made up mostly of single-family homes | bottom: South of Bridge, the landscape changes. It has fewer trees and no bike lane – with more multifamily rental units.

Remember Beech Street? The same tree-lined neighborhood along its northern stretch also has well-maintained sidewalks and a designated bike lane. It used to be a two-lane, one-way street that drivers sped down like they were on a highway. However, the city redesigned it with measures to slow traffic, reduce car accidents, and increase pedestrian and biker safety.

But Beech Street’s bike lane peters out below Bridge Street, just like the tree canopy. There are fewer accessible sidewalks, and traffic speeds up, too, creating dangerous conditions for drivers, walkers, and cyclists.

Everyone from residents to city leaders agrees that the city’s “neighborhood highways” – its many other two-lane, one-way streets – are a safety problem. Yet when it came time to pilot a fix for them, it was the more affluent neighborhood that saw its streets redesigned. Then, nothing more happened – for years. 

“We have these two sides of town that are both complaining about the same issue,” says Mikolo. “The only difference is that the [wealthier neighbors] were heard. This other community, which is low-income and people of color – they’re not being heard by anyone. They’re being ignored.”

These same dynamics play out across New England – and the country – every day. No one should be at higher risk for heat-related disease because they don’t own a home or they have a low income. And the dividing line between who gets safely designed roads should not come down to your race or ethnicity. But the reality is that climate impacts, pollution, and other environmental burdens fall harder on low-income communities and communities of color as well as those who speak limited English. These same communities are often silenced or left out of decisions that directly impact their neighborhoods.

That’s why CLF advocates work with communities and partners regionwide to change the balance of power and decision-making on the environmental, climate, and public health issues that impact these communities. 

CLF’s Arnold Mikolo is working to build a
community of advocates for environmental justice.

“It’s critical that decision-makers hear from people who are on the front lines of these issues, who are speaking from firsthand experiences, and who are there because they are passionate about their communities,” Mikolo says.

However, cautions Mikolo, this kind of work can’t be rushed. “It moves at the speed of trust. Sustainable solutions depend on genuine relationships and buy-in built over time.” 

Building trust in Manchester has meant meeting community members where they are, including by communicating in several languages and understanding that many residents balance multiple jobs. The COVID-19 pandemic created additional barriers to engaging with residents and elected officials in person.

After two years, those efforts are starting to pay off. Prompted by community outreach, the Manchester Department of Public Works has acknowledged the inequities in the city’s street designs and signaled its willingness to engage with neighbors to address them.

Mikolo hopes that someday soon he will be able to bike the entire length of Beech Street in a dedicated bike lane, shaded from the sun by ample leafy trees – trees that, by extension, cool the neighborhood and clean the air. But, he says, in environmental justice work, it’s not just about the outcomes. It’s also about the process.

“We are building a grassroots movement of neighbors and community members. As they see results on one issue, that creates excitement and engagement. Once it’s a movement, then they can go on to tackle other issues they care about.”

Justice carries through all of CLF’s work. Our advocates contribute skills and strategy to support initiatives identified by and with community members. Learn more about our work to support people and justice.