Though you might expect them to be a great unifier, trees are a strangely contentious and political topic in the Pacific Northwest. We fight over where they should go, which should be cut down and how our region’s desperate need for more housing stacks up against our need for trees. Trees are often used as a kind of NIMBY shield wherein folks fight development under the guise of protecting the tree canopy, making it harder to talk about the very real impact that the aforementioned canopy has on our local residents who rely on nature, not housing, for shelter.
But we must set aside this euphemistic “protection of trees” and, instead, truly focus on the impact of urban deforestation. Because it’s hot outside. This is the climate change we were warned about, and these are the impacts. Many of us are scrambling inside, fleeing for the coast or trying to find spaces that have central air — still a rarity around here. But for people who live outside, finding a patch of shade amid the urban heat is a true challenge, especially when the shadiest places — higher-income neighborhoods, parks and open green spaces — are the ones where unhoused people are the least welcome.
In a study of thermal inequality, NPR looked at the respective wealth and temperature of various neighborhoods throughout the country. Across the board, poorer neighborhoods were hotter, sometimes as much as seven to 10 degrees. On a day that spikes into triple digits, that’s noticeable. It may even be lethal.
Loss of trees, of course, coupled with huge expanses of concrete (for driving or parking or, often, just existing), means the air literally can’t cool down as quickly. That means a cycle of increasing heat that can’t be broken without new greenery and construction designed to absorb, rather than radiate, heat. The coolest spots in cities are those with trees, grass and shade like parks, which Seattle’s elected officials have opted to close rather than allow people to take refuge. For homeless folks, lack of green space and cooler infrastructure is just one more way that staying healthy is out of reach.
These unintended consequences are so frequent now that we barely even think about them anymore. We sweep people out of greenbelts and don’t consider the fact that we’re literally putting them at risk of heat stroke. It’s just like when developers decided to plow through neighborhoods which traditionally housed BIPOC communities; while they weren’t specifically hoping to crank up the heat, that’s what happened.
Would it be too much to ask for a moratorium on sweeps of parks and other green spaces during the hottest days of the year? Would it be too much to consider the impact of the lack of trees downtown on the folks who live there? Would it be too much to stop bickering over neighborhood trees in wealthy areas and turn our attention to thermal inequality everywhere else?
Probably. But it’s something to think about.
Read more of the Aug. 3-9, 2022 issue.