With 2020 on track to be the hottest year in recorded history, we are already witnessing extreme heat becoming a major problem for cities. While we like to think of our cities as modern, the truth is that most towns and even major cities are not equipped to handle long heatwaves. In a county where extreme heat kills more people each year than any other type of extreme weather and sickens many times more. You would expect that we’d be ready for the challenge. But are we?
Heat resilient communities
Lower-income neighborhoods are on average much hotter and less shaded than high-income ones. Systemic inequities that include insufficient funds for tree planting and park maintenance are among the leading causes. The risk of heat is magnified in lower-income neighborhoods where many families are among the 13 percent of U.S. households that do not have air conditioning or struggle with energy costs. To make matters worse, these communities boast more residents who have pre-existing health conditions that make them more vulnerable to heat.
While initiatives to protect more people from extreme heat must include better infrastructure, like heat resilient housing and cooling centers, we also need equal focus on tree distribution. Every neighborhood needs to be able to deploy a natural, low-cost way to protect itself.
Side-by-side images of two different Detroit neighborhoods illustrates the disparity in tree cover. Credit: Google Maps.
To understand how heat can get very dangerous very fast, we need to understand the “urban heat island effect”. Heat islands form mostly in unshaded areas. Light and heat are absorbed by naked surfaces such as sidewalks, roads, surrounding buildings, and then radiated back into the air. Creating an oven effect of heat bouncing from one surface to another.
Heat islands take hot weather and make it extreme, or dangerously hot.
Trees protect from urban heat and the island effect. Providing shade, trees can reduce outside surface temperatures as much as 20 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Trees also act as a natural air conditioner, releasing moisture that cools the surrounding air. Large patches of trees can create pools of cool air and spread it by local wind patterns.
Using trees to protect cities should be a no brainer. This natural cooling method saves money, is easy to implement, and helps slow down climate change. Urban trees reduce energy use by over 7% saving homeowners $7.8 billion dollars annually. This reduction in energy consumption also translates to fewer carbon emissions, as less power is produced. Urban trees can naturally absorb over 120 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from the air every year. Trees do good for everyone, any which way you turn it.
This life-saving potential is why American Forests is advancing Tree Equity in America’s Cities. Through this urban forestry program, we can protect our cities and most importantly our people.
To learn more about this initiative by our partners at American Forests, please click here.