Until now, Jhoanna Echeverria’s commute home from Cesar Chavez High School has involved waiting outside a sun-blasted Valley Metro bus shelter.
That will start to change on Monday, a day when Phoenix’s afternoon heat will flirt with triple digits. On Saturday morning, she and classmates helped plant 259 trees along a sidewalk on Baseline Road between 35th and 39th avenues at the northern edge of Cesar Chavez Park.
The planting, with support from corporate and nonprofit partners, will help create one of 100 “cool corridors” that Phoenix has committed to establish by 2030 in shade-starved zones with high pedestrian traffic.
Echeverria, a freshman, worked a few dozen yards from that metal bus shelter, shoveling dirt over the roots of a young ash. It might be the one that she leans against during future waits when she’s too late to grab a seat on the bench.
“Lots of students get there first and take over the little bus area,” she said. “It gets pretty hot waiting outside. Trees are going to be a big help.”
Without more trees and other urban cooling features, the Phoenix area stands to lose lives collectively valued in the billions of dollars in coming decades, a Nature Conservancy study concluded last year.
Lack of shade raises temperatures
The ashes and elms that a few dozen volunteers and city workers planted on Saturday are meant to provide cooling safety and comfort along a sidewalk that many students and residents traverse on their way to a neighborhood library, shops or bus stops.
The city chose it in part based on a “tree equity” tool that the nonprofit American Forests created to grade neighborhood shade across the city and beyond. That interactive tool, allowing users to click on and learn about any neighborhood, ranks the Laveen-area tract’s shade 677th out of 965 census block groups in the city. The neighborhood’s existing shade canopy covered 5% of the area.
American Forests’ review of satellite imagery puts the city canopy as a whole at just above 8% of the 500-square-mile land mass, while city estimates using other data models have generally put the urban forest at about 11-13%, with a long-term goal of roughly doubling it.
People of color make up 69% of the neighborhood around Chavez Park, according to American Forests’ scoring tool. It’s common for people of color to be in the majority in neighborhoods with insufficient shade, concentrating the heat-related health struggles, American Forests CEO Jad Daley said.
Across America, Daley said, the EPA estimates that the urban heat island effect created by development that lacks sufficient reflectivity or shade can raise nighttime temperatures by 22 degrees. Daytime temperatures in those zones can be elevated 5 degrees or more. Such warming takes a toll on people who don’t have adequate home cooling or who spend too much time in the sun. Hundreds die from heat-related causes every year in Maricopa County.
“This is life and death infrastructure for cities,” Daley said of trees. “We ought to be investing in it, as a country, like it matters.”
American Forests and corporate partners iHeart Media, Aspiration and Salesforce provided funding for Saturday’s planting.
'Let's mobilize a groundswell'
The city has planted about 4,000 trees a year, but loses a similar number to storms and other hazards, so that officials say the canopy has maintained coverage rather than growing substantially. This year’s budget added funding for 1,800 more trees to plant in nine cool corridors, with nine more corridors planned each year.
Those trees, like the ones planted this weekend, are on city property. The City Council is considering a proposal to use $4.5 million from last year’s federal pandemic relief funding to accelerate neighborhood plantings, with urban foresters to assist residents who want to plant and care for trees.
With corporate and residential partners, Mayor Kate Gallego said, a cool corridor like the new one on Baseline can anchor a broader urban forest.
“We hope this will be the start of something very big in this area,” she said.
The need throughout Phoenix is massive, according to Daley. Getting every neighborhood up to an ideal level of tree equity would require 2.1 million trees. The city government can’t do it alone, he said, though its leadership is important.
“Let’s mobilize a groundswell,” Daley said. “Let’s shock ourselves.”
More federal funding may help, as a $2.5 billion fund for tree equity grants was included in the stalled Build Back Better legislation, and Daley said it could be part of a budget reconciliation bill this summer.
Climate change will be 'our problem'
Cesar Chavez ninth-grader Rosa Ramirez said she helped plant trees on Saturday because it gave her a chance to do something about climate change’s effects on her neighborhood. She walks the sidewalk on her way to the library before her mother picks her up, she said, often in oppressive heat.
Climate change “is going to be our problem,” Ramirez said, referring to her classmates and other youths. “Why not get involved now?
“A lot of people are talking, but I don’t see a lot of people doing anything,” she said.
When the trees planted on Saturday reach maturity, they may shade up to half of the area on the sidewalk, said David Hondula, the city’s heat response officer. That will make the trek significantly safer and more comfortable, he said.
Hondula acknowledged that the city’s tree planting has not matched public expectations that surrounded a 2010 shade plan calling for 25% canopy coverage, though he said it’s hard to pinpoint how the canopy has expanded or contracted. The city’s estimates at that time were modeled on sample parcels, not satellite imagery. His guess is that the canopy has roughly held steady in the years since.
The city’s commitments, corporate and nonprofit partners, and a proposal to triple the canopies in 15 neighborhoods through the neighborhood equity accelerator have put Phoenix’s urban forest on the cusp of meaningful expansion, Hondula said. The addition of 9 miles of cool corridors around the city this year is a start.
“We know we need to be planting more trees,” he said, pointing at the row of new plantings, “and here we go.”
Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Beating the heat: Phoenix plants a first 'cool corridor'