Trees Are Key To Fighting Urban Heat — But Cities Keep Losing Them | Texas Public Radio

Trees Are Key To Fighting Urban Heat — But Cities Keep Losing Them

Sep 4, 2019
Originally published on September 4, 2019 5:02 pm

Annie Haigler steps out of her home in Louisville, Ky., pulling a handkerchief out of her pocket to dab sweat off her forehead. She enjoys sitting on her porch, especially to watch the sunrise. She has always been a morning person.

But as the day progresses, the heat can be unbearable for her. On summer days like this, when highs reach into the 90s, the lack of trees in her neighborhood is hard for Haigler to ignore.

"That's what I'm accustomed to trees doing: They bring comfort. You don't notice it, you don't think about it. But they bring comfort to you," she says.

The tree cover in her neighborhood, Park DuValle, is about half the city average. As one of the lower-income areas of Louisville, it's in line with a citywide trend: Wealthier areas of the city have up to twice as many trees as do poorer areas.

Annie Haigler poses on her front porch in the Park DuValle neighborhood of Louisville. Haigler says she wishes her neighborhood had more trees.
Sean McMinn / NPR

Trees can play a huge role in the health of people living in cities, but across the country, cities are losing millions of trees year after year. And many poor urban neighborhoods — often home to a city's most vulnerable — are starting at a disadvantage.

"If we show you a map of tree canopy in virtually any city in America, we're also showing you a map of income," says Jad Daley, president and CEO of the nonprofit American Forests. "And in many cases we're showing you a map of race and ethnicity."

That lack of tree cover can make a neighborhood hotter, and a joint investigation by NPR and the University of Maryland's Howard Center for Investigative Journalism found just that: Low-income areas in dozens of major U.S. cities are more likely to be hotter than their wealthier counterparts, and those areas are disproportionately communities of color.

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"If you live in an area in cities that is seeing more extreme heat days, but you don't have tree cover to cool down your neighborhood, that can literally be a life or death issue," says Daley. "The folks who are least likely to have air conditioning to weather heat waves, the folks who are most likely to have preexisting health conditions that put them at greater risk from those heat waves, aren't getting the benefits of trees."

A study by the Georgia Institute of Technology found Louisville to be getting hotter faster than any of the other 50 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, compared with the rural areas around them. One reason cities tend to be hotter? Fewer trees.

Louisville is losing 54,000 trees each year from development, natural disasters, disease, invasive species and lack of tree care. And it's not alone. From 2009 to 2014, 44 states lost tree cover in urban areas — that's around 28.5 million trees lost every year, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

"Make no mistake, we are losing trees all around the U.S., and cities are struggling to keep up with restoring and establishing a healthy, thriving tree canopy," says Dan Lambe, president of the Arbor Day Foundation.

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In keeping neighborhoods cool, money matters

In Louisville, St. James Court is an oasis: A fountain bubbles in the center of a scenic boulevard. There are few spots left unshaded by the dense tree canopy that stretches overhead.

But maintaining the quarter-mile stretch of land will cost around $20,000 this year, according to the St. James Court Association. That money comes from the annual St. James Court Art Show. Not all neighborhoods can afford that kind of tree maintenance, and neither can the city government.

A bronze fountain stands in the center of St. James Court, a tree-covered boulevard in Old Louisville.
Sean McMinn / NPR

Louisville is facing a $35 million budget deficit, which has already resulted in cuts to libraries, pools and firehouses. The city also eliminated the Office of Sustainability, which was coordinating tree planting and heat island issues in the city.

Still, the city estimates it has planted and donated nearly 30,000 trees since 2013. That ends up being more than 5,000 trees on average each year — not nearly enough to make up for the more than 50,000 lost annually.

"We've got to wrestle with this great American challenge, right? People want everything but they don't want to pay for anything," says Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer. When it comes to increasing tree cover, "city government is not going to be able to do all that by itself," he says.

Maria Koetter, the former director of the Office of Sustainability, says one of the reasons sustainability initiatives can lack political support and resources is that their benefits often aren't immediate. That is especially true, she says, when it comes to trees.

"With a tree, you plant it now, it won't hit a 30-foot crown for 15 years," says Koetter. "A lot of that work of today is about a future payoff."

"Instead of giving pills, we plant trees"

In one Louisville neighborhood, a team of researchers is trying to prove that trees are just as important to the health of people in cities as are widely accepted practices like building codes and water treatment.

The Green Heart Project — a multimillion-dollar effort funded in large part by the National Institutes of Health and the Nature Conservancy — is starting to plant fully grown trees, as tall as 30 feet, in a test area within the city. The five-year study will measure health indicators, particularly those for heart health, for around 700 participants, half of whom will be living under the shade of those new trees. The other half will be part of a control group, who live where new trees haven't yet been planted.

"The idea was to run this whole project as a clinical trial, but instead of giving pills, we plant trees," says Aruni Bhatnagar, director of the University of Louisville's Christina Lee Brown Envirome Institute, which is leading the study.

Aruni Bhatnagar (from left) and Ted Smith, researchers at the University of Louisville's Christina Lee Brown Envirome Institute, point to the areas in the city where their team is planting trees.
Sean McMinn / NPR

Beyond cooling a city's temperature down, which on its own can improve health, trees have been linked in prior studies to myriad positive health outcomes: longer life spans, lower levels of stress, better air quality and lower rates of cardiac disease. But Bhatnagar says those studies haven't been enough to get city leaders to prioritize trees.

"We're trying to convince other cities that this is worth doing," says Bhatnagar. "Design cities and neighborhoods that first think about health, not last. That should be the first consideration before you put a single brick into a neighborhood."

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We told you yesterday that low-income areas of major U.S. cities are often hotter than wealthy neighborhoods. It's the finding of an investigation from NPR and the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland.

Today we look at one of the best ways to beat the urban heat - trees. American cities are losing nearly 29 million trees every year. Many are struggling to reverse that trend. That includes Louisville, Ky., which, compared to its surroundings, has been getting hotter faster than any other U.S. city. NPR's Meg Anderson reports.

MEG ANDERSON, BYLINE: Annie Haigler is walking down her block in Park DuValle, a lower-income neighborhood on Louisville's west side. It's lined with single-family homes and well-kept, tidy yards.

ANNIE HAIGLER: First of all, this is my neighborhood, and I love it, even without the things that I would want to have here.

ANDERSON: Things like trees. She points to a small, scraggly one in the grassy patch running down her street.

HAIGLER: That's the median right there. They've got a tree in there, but it's one tree.

ANDERSON: There's another small tree behind it, and there are parts of this neighborhood with more trees. But overall, data shows the canopy here is about half the city average. Haigler says she thinks trees were just not a priority. Park DuValle used to be the site of a massive public housing complex. That was demolished, and construction started here in the late 90s.

HAIGLER: So after 20 years, if we had thought differently about the design, we might have put more trees here.

ANDERSON: Across Louisville, wealthier neighborhoods have as much as twice the tree coverage as low-income areas, many of which are communities of color.

Jad Daley is president and CEO of the nonprofit American Forests. He says that pattern is often the case nationwide.

JAD DALEY: If we show you a map of a tree canopy in virtually any city in America, we're also showing you a map of income. And in many cases, we're showing you a map of race and ethnicity in ways that transcend income.

ANDERSON: Trees aren't just pleasant; they're key to fighting heat.

DALEY: If you live in an area in cities that's seeing more extreme heat days but you don't have tree cover to cool down your neighborhood, that can literally be a life-or-death issue.

ANDERSON: According to an analysis by NPR and the Howard Center, low-income areas of cities across the country tend to be hotter than their wealthier counterparts. Those areas are hotter, in part, because they often have fewer trees. And that heat can take a toll on health. Here's Daley.

DALEY: The folks who are least likely to have air conditioning to weather heat waves, the folks who are most likely to have preexisting health conditions that put them at greater risk from those heat waves aren't getting the benefits of trees.

ANDERSON: Between 2009 and 2014, 44 states lost tree cover in urban areas, according to the U.S. Forest Service. And when it comes to trees, many low-income areas are already starting at a deficit.

Ked Stanfield, executive director of Louisville Grows, a nonprofit that plants trees, says it doesn't have to be that way. He took me to St. James Court in Old Louisville. It's a boulevard famous for its stately Victorian homes and an annual art fair. But we were there to see the huge, lush canopy towering over us.

KED STANFIELD: If you were to look at an aerial view of this, it wouldn't look too dissimilar from a forest.

ANDERSON: The trees shade us almost completely. Stanfield says it's a reminder of what's possible if trees are part of the plan from the beginning.

STANFIELD: For anybody that plants trees in a city, this is the goal. This is the dream. This is what you hope to create in these cities.

ANDERSON: But even if trees are in the plan, maintaining them takes money - a lot of money. This year, tree maintenance on this street, which is about a quarter-mile-long, will cost around $20,000, according to the neighborhood association.

The city has planted and donated roughly 5,000 trees annually since 2013, but it loses about 54,000 every year, according to its own assessment, to invasive species, natural disasters and urban development. And Louisville is facing a $35 million budget deficit. They've cut funding to emergency police and fire services. Mayor Greg Fischer says he'd like to plant more trees...

GREG FISCHER: But we've got to wrestle with this great American challenge, right? People want everything, but they don't want to pay for anything.

ANDERSON: When it comes to planting tens of thousands more, he says...

FISCHER: City government's not going to be able to do all that by itself.

ANDERSON: He's counting on nonprofits and other institutions to fill in the gaps.

At the University of Louisville's Envirome Institute, researchers are trying to make the case that trees are a must-have in city budgets. They're starting a study called the Green Heart Project and will plant full-grown trees as tall as 30 feet in a 3-square-mile area in Louisville. The five-year study will measure how the health of hundreds of participants changes and compare them to a nearby control group. In short, they're testing trees the same way you test a new drug.

ARUNI BHATNAGAR: The idea was to run this whole project as a clinical trial, but instead of giving pills, we plant trees.

ANDERSON: Aruni Bhatnagar is director of the institute. And he says, beyond cooling a city down, studies have linked trees to much more - better air quality, better stormwater management, lower energy costs, lower levels of stress, even a longer life. But Bhatnagar says you can't always isolate trees as the reason those things happen.

BHATNAGAR: Everything remaining the same - now they put trees in it. What happens?

ANDERSON: He says cities have divorced themselves from nature, and now he wants to show what happens when you put nature back in.

Meg Anderson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.