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Growing Cool Communities

Regions across the country are breaking heat records left and right in a trend that doesn’t seem to be going away. President Biden’s recent executive order to address extreme heat is only the beginning of government interventions to make our daily way of life more livable.

While the executive order addressed workers’ rights in extreme heat and invested millions in weather forecasting research and green infrastructure, it did not address the eye-opening disparities in heat between communities that have tree cover and those that do not.

Urban heat islands are metropolitan areas that experience significantly higher temperatures than their surrounding rural areas due to human activities, infrastructure, and dense development. The concrete, asphalt, and metal that compose urban landscapes absorb and re-radiate heat, leading to temperature spikes that can reach alarming levels. These elevated temperatures contribute to a host of issues, including compromised air quality, increased energy consumption, and heightened health risks for residents.

The most glaringly obvious piece of identifying heat islands is these communities do not have tree cover while nearby communities with ample tree cover might benefit from ten degrees lower temperatures – which can be life and death when temperatures are soaring. While tree planting in urban and suburban areas will not fix extreme heat, it’s a simple and effective tool that could be deployed today.

The advantages of tree planting are endless. More trees in heat islands contribute to temperature regulation, air quality enhancement, energy savings, community well-being, and more.

We have the policy tools to make this a reality and should be building consensus to invest in these programs while we work on fixing the more systemic challenges facing extreme heat. These programs include:

LWCF Stateside and Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership Program: These programs invest federal and non-federal dollars into close-to-home recreation areas that can include tree cover. These are community-driven projects with applicants that know best which areas would benefit most from shade.

TREES Act: Reintroduction of this bipartisan bill from last Congress would go a long way in reducing energy costs for low-income neighborhoods. The bill would create a program at the Department of Energy to plant at least 300,000 trees each year in neighborhoods lacking tree cover.

Providing Technical Assistance to Communities to Apply for Existing Funding: Under BIL and IRA, there are a historic number of programs that can be used for advancing tree equity. These include USDA’s Forest Service Urban & Community grants, EPA’s Environmental Justice Thriving Communities Grantmaking Program, and DOT’s Reconnecting Communities Program and Neighborhood Access and Equity Grant Program to name a few.

These are tools we can deploy today and should be a commonsense solution to mitigating the worst effects of extreme heat.


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