In Rush to Fight Climate Change, Cities Coordinate to Battle Heat With Trees

By: - April 5, 2023 12:00 am

A woman walks with a child among the blooming trees of a city park on a spring day in Walla Walla, Wash. As cities recognize trees as critical infrastructure, leaders from across the country are joining forces in preparation for an influx of federal funding for urban forestry. Greg Lehman/Walla Walla Union-Bulletin via The Associated Press

From Seattle to Palm Beach, Florida, city leaders agree that urban areas need more trees to alleviate the effects of climate change. Amid the growing attention to tree canopy — and an infusion of federal funding — more than a dozen cities are convening to share ideas and plan the urban forests of the future. 

Leaders in many communities now consider trees to be critical infrastructure, providing shade, absorbing stormwater runoff and filtering air pollution. The focus on urban forests has coincided with a growing recognition that low-income neighborhoods and communities of color often have far less tree cover — and suffer increased vulnerability to extreme heat as a result.

When Congress included .5 billion for urban forestry in the Inflation Reduction Act last year, the investment came after intensive lobbying from a group of six cities, known collectively as the Vanguard Cities Initiative, whose leaders made the case to federal policymakers that tree canopy could help mitigate climate change’s effects.

Now those six cities — Albuquerque, Boulder, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Portland, Oregon — have helped to launch a series of learning and information-sharing programs to bring dozens more communities into the fold, to maximize the effectiveness of the soon-to-be-disbursed federal money.

“There are so many cities out there trying their best, but they just don’t have the capacity to understand what they should be implementing, who to partner with and how to make the most of this federal funding,” said Kirsten Maynard, director of national initiatives at the Center for Regenerative Solutions, the convening group that organized the initial Vanguard Cities Initiative.

Earlier this month, the group launched its first of three five-month programs, known as the Urban Nature-based Climate Solutions Accelerator, which will consist of more than a dozen training and collaboration sessions. With a huge boost in federal money on the way, the Vanguard Cities hope the accelerator will become a force multiplier, allowing city officials across the country to learn from one another and from experts on urban canopies, all trying to answer a critical question.

“What will it take to create an urban natural infrastructure of sufficient scale that’s going to protect an area from the things that are coming?” asked Brett KenCairn, director of the Center for Regenerative Solutions and senior policy adviser for climate and resilience for the city of Boulder, Colorado.

“We’re setting the stage for the scale we’re talking about and the policy we would need to make that happen,” KenCairn said.

The initial accelerator program will focus on urban heat and how urban forestry can mitigate the health risks of a warming climate.  

“Heat kills more people than any other weather-related disaster, and it’s something that’s getting a lot worse,” said Evan Mallen, senior analyst for Georgia Tech’s Urban Climate Lab, who is serving as an instructor for the Accelerator program. “[This program] will help make sure this money is really spent in a way that is efficient, effective and equitable.”

Sixteen cities will join the first program as full participants, bringing in representatives from urban forestry and public health departments, community groups and nonprofit partners to share strategies with one another. Dozens more communities and federal officials have signed up as observers, to learn from the program’s instructional sessions. Subsequent programs will focus on issues such as storm and flooding risks and green infrastructure.

In Austin, Texas, one of many communities with racial and socioeconomic disparities in tree coverage, representatives from several city departments will join the accelerator program. They’ll be accompanied by leaders from Travis County, which includes Austin, and community nonprofit groups.

“We’re projecting more extreme heat, more extreme rainfall events and more prolonged periods of extreme drought [due to climate change],” said Rohan Lilauwala, Austin’s environmental program coordinator. “Those environmental hazards are disproportionately felt by low-income and communities of color, and one of the things we need to do is direct our tree planting, our land conservation and our ecosystem restoration efforts towards those communities.”

The city of Chicago has committed to planting 15,000 trees annually for the next five years, but many surrounding communities are still working to build their urban forestry capacity, said Lydia Scott, director of the Chicago Region Trees Initiative, a partnership of organizations and agencies across 284 communities in the area. 

“We want forestry to be at the table and this impact of green space to be at every level of cities’ decision-making process,” she said. “Hopefully, we’ll see some great opportunities for us to replicate what’s happening in other places and go at solutions collectively from a national perspective.” 

Another of the group’s instructors is Julia Hillengas, co-founder and executive director of PowerCorpsPHL, a program in Philadelphia that provides job opportunities to young people in fields such as urban forestry and green infrastructure. She will be helping cities consider the challenges and opportunities of building the workforce needed to put the federal funding into action.

“There’s a big question of timing — when funding hits and how fast people can get things off the ground,” she said. “It’s going to force this internal look of ‘Do we have the talent? Are they ready to go?’ Communities can really step up on the economic side of things in a way that includes great-paying jobs in an industry that’s growing.”

Tacoma, Washington, which has the sparsest tree canopy coverage of any city in the western part of the state, is among the cities scrambling to scale up quickly.

“My biggest question is, ‘How are we going to grow our capacity fast enough to even receive that influx of money?’” asked Lowell Wyse, executive director of the Tacoma Tree Foundation, a nonprofit founded in 2018 that supports tree-planting and advocacy efforts. 

Leaders in Cleveland are also focused on building an urban forestry workforce; the Cleveland Tree Coalition, a group of more than 50 public, private and nonprofit partners, formed in 2015. It aims to grow the city’s tree canopy coverage to 30% by 2040, up from the current 18% mark. 

“Trees are a long game,” said Samira Malone, who was named the coalition’s first director last year. “It’s going to take some time for us to see and feel the benefits of planting, but this is also an opportunity to intentionally, strategically and restoratively diversify the field of green jobs.”

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Alex Brown
Alex Brown

Based in Seattle, Alex Brown covers environmental issues for Stateline. Prior to joining Stateline, Brown wrote for The Chronicle in Lewis County, Washington state.