Arizona cities, environmentalists and businesses are teaming up to combat extreme heat by launching a variety of tree planting initiatives.
With names like “Trees are Cool” and a “Cool Corridor” program, Mesa and Phoenix are trying to motivate residents to join the effort by providing free trees and resources to help plant them.
Data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggests that Arizona’s climate is becoming more extreme and deaths from extreme heat have skyrocketed in recent years.
Maricopa County — the nation’s fastest-growing county and home to one of America’s hottest cities in Phoenix — had a record 378 heat-related deaths last year, according to the county’s health department.
Nick Arnold, a legislative program manager at climate advocacy group Climate Cabinet, said the startling numbers are no coincidence.
“Locations without adequate tree cover experience worse extreme heat throughout the day because without tree cover, sidewalks and much of our infrastructure absorb heat from the sun and then re-emit it at night, even when there isn’t the same amount of solar energy,” he said.
To increase Mesa’s tree canopy, Mayor John Giles announced a “Trees are Cool” initiative in February, with a goal of planting one million trees in the city by 2050.
“Any meaningful climate action plan … must address heat mitigation, and trees play an important role in providing shade, keeping temperatures down and filtering greenhouse gas emissions,” Giles said.
As part of the initiative, the mayor’s office launched an online tool to record newly planted trees. The data, which takes into account existing trees, will help the city track its efforts to meet its goals.
The site also identifies mesa neighborhoods at greater risk of being affected by the heat and provides information on tree selection, planting, and care.
According to news reports, Mesa residents can receive up to $100 for planting two trees, and volunteers can help plant the trees. Visit the City of Mesa website for more information about the program.
In 2021, Phoenix made headlines when it established the country’s first publicly funded Office of Heat Response and Mitigation. Led by Arizona State University environmental science professor David Hondula, the four-person team developed a strategic plan to combat urban heat and its associated health risks.
One of the key people on the team is Lora Martens, a landscape architect with expertise in desert plants.
As manager of the team’s urban tree program, Martens is tasked with enlarging Phoenix’s tree canopy. Their efforts build on the city’s 2010 Tree and Shade Master Plan, which aims for 25% canopy coverage by 2030. Martens estimates that the city is currently only about 12% covered by tree canopy.
“I feel like it’s close to the right target, but maybe we want more nuance, that it’s not 25% everywhere,” she said.
“Perhaps there should be more canopy where people are walking and a little less in areas downtown where there is a lot of shadow from buildings.”
Martens said tree planting efforts in Phoenix are divided among different boroughs, with Phoenix Urban Forestry taking over the main streets and parks.
Their goal is to unite all departments under one master plan for planting trees. This includes providing incentives for planting trees on private property during new construction and providing ways to encourage planting on established sites, she said.
While the city is currently conducting tree planting events with city workers, Martens’ office is developing a program to involve volunteers. She hopes it will be up and running later this year.
Phoenix currently operates a Cool Corridor program that combats urban heat island effects by planting trees and other vegetation along city streets.
While planting more trees in the city is a long-term solution to combating the extreme heat, immediate action may be needed to help those in need.
The Phoenix City Council has allocated $3 million from the American Rescue Plan Act to install man-made shade structures.
The Office of Heat Response and Mitigation is overseeing the project, and built environment specialist Mary Wright said that “built shade can allow us to tactically provide shade in places where a tree probably wouldn’t survive or where a tree would.” additional water needed to survive. ”
This project is in the planning stages, she said, and community input, product availability, cost, safety and aesthetics are still being considered.
“All structural designs will be customizable to incorporate the integration of artwork from local artists, which is a high priority for the community,” she said.
American Express announced in February 2022 a $1.1 million grant to American Forests to help the nonprofit conservation organization increase tree cover in Phoenix and three other cities.
The two organizations are tracking the progress of tree planting efforts on an interactive map that shows the tree justice rating of neighborhoods across the Valley.
The tree equity score evaluates existing tree canopy, population density, income, employment, surface temperature, race, age and health.
American Forests calculates canopy coverage in various parts of Phoenix through a partnership with EarthDefine, a geospatial data and services company based in Redmond, Washington.
EarthDefine calculates coverage by aiming a laser at trees and measuring the time it takes for the reflected light to return to the receiver. Their values differ from the canopy coverage reported by Mesa and Phoenix.
Michelle Kurtz, a spokeswoman for American Forests, said they use additional data from a variety of sources to derive the score, including the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, imagery from Landsat and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
American Forests didn’t say how many trees they expect to plant. However, it was noted that their goal is to get as close as possible to a tree equity score of 100 in each of the four cities on the grant.
The grant will also “support climate-resilient urban forests, create forestry jobs that will be marketed to historically marginalized populations, assess urban tree nursery needs, and help build nursery capacity,” American Express said on its website.
According to the interactive map, Phoenix has an average tree value of 80 out of 100. Mesa, on the other hand, has an average score of 80 and Chandler has a score of 81. Glendale and Gilbert have scores of 75 and 83, respectively.
Tree capital values in individual boroughs throughout Phoenix vary widely. Scores are significantly lower in low-income and black communities in South and West Phoenix.
Some neighborhoods have scores in the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s, while other Phoenix neighborhoods have scores in the 90+.
Anyone interested in getting involved in the Tree Equity program can visit treeequityscore.org and explore the Get Involved page.
Phoenix nonprofit Trees Matter has been working to increase the number of trees in the Southwest since its inception in 2005.
Through its tree planting program, Trees Matter provides training tools and resources to help community members organize tree planting events and works with local government agencies, schools and businesses to coordinate efforts.
Trees Matter provides free trees to low-income residents and helps them plant and care for the trees.
For those interested in volunteering with Trees Matter, there are several ways to get involved. Individuals can participate in a community tree planting event organized by the organization, become a Trees Matter ambassador, make a donation, or join the organization’s mailing list to stay informed of upcoming events and volunteer opportunities.
Trees Matter’s partnership with the Salt River Project through the Utility Shade Tree Program is an example of how the organization works with other groups to promote the benefits of trees.
The program offers SRP customers a cost-effective way to place shade trees around their homes and businesses and encourage the planting of large, water-efficient shade trees that can help reduce energy use.
Trees Matter works with SRP to provide information and resources to clients interested in participating in the program and offers free workshops to teach participants how to plant and care for their new trees.
As municipalities and businesses take action to protect citizens from the heat, Arizona lawmakers have been slow to act.
SB 1689, introduced by Sen. Mitzi Epstein, D-Phoenix, would give the Arizona Department of Education $400,000 to be distributed to public schools for tree planting.
Although all Senate Democrats supported the bill, no Legislative Committee took action.
Rep. Stephanie Stahl Hamilton, D-Tucson, senior member of the House Natural Resources, Energy and Water Committee, said she believes Republican lawmakers have been tough on SB 1689 and other environmental justice legislation proposed by Democrats be.