Google debuts an AI tool for tracking tree canopy coverage in L.A.

Shady Deal

Google debuts an AI tool for tracking tree canopy coverage in L.A.

A tree-lined street in Los Angeles, where Google is piloting a new mapping tool that aids cities in identifying areas where additional tree coverage is needed the most. (De'Andre Bush/UnSplash)

Last week Google formally unveiled a new, free-to-access tool that marries artificial intelligence with aerial mapping imagery so that users (city planners, community organizations, individual citizens, and more) can accurately view which areas of a target city have adequate tree coverage and which areas don’t; and from there take action to fill in sparsely planted patches of the urban canopy.

Dubbed Tree Canopy Lab, the tool is the latest integrated addition to the tech giant’s Environmental Explorer Insights platform and is being piloted in Los Angeles, a city where the presence of trees—Mother Nature’s most industrious multitaskers—play a crucial role in reducing the urban heat island effect and fostering healthier, more sustainable communities.

In April 2019, the office of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced an aggressive urban forestry plan as part of the city’s Green New Deal, calling for the planting and maintaining of 90,000 trees across the city to provide 61 million square feet of shade by the start of next year. L.A.’s Green New Deal also sets out to increase the tree canopy by 50 percent within low-income areas known to sizzle and bake during heat events, and where residents are disproportionately impacted by poor air quality and its related health woes along with other issues that could be remedied by the presence of more pollution-scrubbing, shade-providing, street-beautifying trees. The city aims to achieve that goal by 2028. To help L.A. achieve these arboreal objectives, Garcetti announced the appointment of the city’s first-ever Forestry Officer, Rachel Malarich, in August 2019.

As noted by Google in a news release, Tree Canopy Lab is “already helping people across the city” reach these goals. Garcetti, Malarich, community and environmental groups, and ordinary residents alike “all have access to a birds-eye view of where the city’s existing trees are and which areas need more greenery,” explained Google in the release.

As detailed by Google, the tool not only allows Los Angelenos to view the city’s growing canopy on an interactive map but view it with “local context” including neighborhood-by-neighborhood tree cover percentages and population density statistics. The tool also provides data on which areas of the city are particularly prone to extreme heat events, and in turn, require prioritized investments in tree-planting efforts. Robust and multilayered, the aim of Tree Canopy Lab is to lessen the reliance on block-by-block manual tree studies/surveys that, while more helpful than not, require an inordinate amount of time and effort and aren’t always fully accurate and rely on outdated data.

During the L.A. pilot of Tree Canopy Lab, it was found that 50 percent of Angelenos live in areas with less than 10 percent canopy coverage and 44 percent of residents live in neighborhoods that suffer from extreme heat risk. From there, a correlation was drawn between areas of high canopy coverage and low heat risk—not surprisingly, these lushly planted areas of L.A. were also the ones with the lowest population density.

“Every tree we plant can help stem the tide of the climate crisis, and when we expand our urban forest, we can sow the seeds of a healthier, more sustainable and equitable future for communities hit hardest by rising temperatures and intensifying heatwaves,” said Garcetti in a statement. “Google’s technology will help us bring the power of trees to families and households across Los Angeles—adding greenery to our public spaces, injecting beauty into our city, and bringing cooler temperatures to our neighborhoods.”

Per Google, it plans to share data and insights gleaned from Tree Canopy Lab with “hundreds” of cities in the coming year while it continues to improve the technology based on the pilot roll-out in Los Angeles. City officials and planners who are looking to beautify and cool down their respective burgs are also encouraged to proactively reach out and get involved.