Unless you’ve been away from the news all summer, you probably are aware that earth just experienced the hottest summer on record—the hottest June, July and August since humans began keeping track of global temperatures in 1880.
“Unfortunately, climate change is happening. Things that we said would come to pass are coming to pass,” said Gavin Schmidt, climate scientist and director of the Goddard Institute of Space Studies. “And it will get worse if we continue to emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses into our atmosphere.”
This summer’s heat exacerbated the deadly wildfires in Canada and Hawaii and the scorching heat waves in South America, Japan, Europe and parts of the U.S., while likely contributing to severe rainfall in parts of Europe, according to NASA, which tracks worldwide temperatures and studies and reports on climate change for the federal government.
Unique to cities all across the world, including our large urban areas in New York state like New York City and Buffalo, is the so-called heat island effect, where high temperatures are made even hotter by the man-made urban landscape. Buildings, roads and other structures absorb and re-emit the sun’s heat more than natural landscapes, such as forests, grass and bodies of water. You can feel it when you walk down the street in any large city.
If the temperature is, say, 90 degrees or above, the sidewalk is baking, retaining heat, hemmed in by tall buildings all around you. The heat lingers and smacks you in the face. The hotter the air temperature, the more furnace-like or suffocating it can feel.
Phoenix may have had the worst of it this summer with a record 31 straight days of 110 degrees or higher. Urban areas in the daytime are about 1-7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than outlying areas and in nighttime the difference is 2-5 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The New York League of Conservation Voters (NYLCV) is one of more than 100 organizations that are part of Forest For All NYC, a coalition of New York City parks, environmental, environmental justice, workforce development groups, and more , formed to increase the City’s tree canopy and number of trees in the five boroughs, particularly in underserved areas of the city.
More tree coverage has several positive impacts on urban areas during summer, the EPA explains, by providing shade, reducing solar radiation reflected back into the environment, and by a process called evapotranspiration, by which trees and vegetation absorb water through their roots and then cool surroundings by releasing water vapor into the air through their leaves. A canopy cover also provides cooling through evaporation of rainfall collected on leaves and soil.
“Research shows that urban forests have temperatures that are on average 2.9 degrees Fahrenheit lower than unforested urban areas,” the EPA reports.
For some, this can be a life or death situation, particularly for Black and Brown New Yorkers. In New York City, there are about 13 heatstroke deaths per year, over 100 deaths from natural causes that are exacerbated by extreme heat, and over 450 visits to the emergency room due to the heat, according to the Cool Neighborhoods NYC report. “We know there is an injustice here, because 50 percent of the heat-related deaths in New York City are Black/African American people, even though they make up only 25 percent of the city’s population, writes WE ACT for Environmental Justice in their 2023 Extreme Heat Policy Agenda. “In New York City, extreme heat is the leading cause of weather-related deaths, with an average of 370 residents dying prematurely each year because of extreme, heat-related events.”
Forest For All NYC supports drastically increasing the number of trees in the city in an equitable way. New York currently has seven million trees providing a tree canopy cover for 22 percent of the city. Forest For All strives to increase it to 30 percent by 2035, with an emphasis on poorer, underserved communities in the city.
“While many of our streets are tree lined, whole swaths of our city have fewer street trees, especially in lower income communities and communities of color,” a second editorial, in the Daily News by City Council Members Gale Brewer, Eric Bottcher and Shekar Krishnan and The Nature Conservancy’s Emily Maxwell, said.
In a positive move in that direction, the New York City Council recently passed a bill, Intro 1066, that would require the city’s office of long-term planning and sustainability to consider the role of trees, tree canopy, and vegetation in its long-term sustainability planning.
Another measure NYLCV is urging the council to pass is Intro 1065, which would require the creation of an urban forest master plan aimed at protecting and increasing the city’s urban forest. This master plan is much needed for New York City.
“New York City’s urban tree canopy is vital to rolling back air pollution, reducing carbon emissions, improving stormwater runoff, and providing relief from the urban heat island effect that takes such a toll on our most vulnerable communities,” said Alia Soomro, NYLCV’s Deputy Director for NYC Policy. “By passing Intros 1065, the City Council has the opportunity to put a robust and equitable urban forest within reach.”
We urge the City Council and Mayor Adams to enact additional legislation and sufficient budgets to ensure the city can meet the goal of 30 percent canopy cover by 2035 and to meet it in an equitable way so that the city’s goals of environmental justice are met.
Beyond New York City, the rest of New York State is also recognizing the vital role of urban forests in combating extreme heat and addressing climate change. Cities like Troy have taken proactive steps by enacting community forest management plans with the support of the Department of Environmental Conservation, ensuring sustainable tree care practices. Meanwhile, Buffalo’s Bureau of Forestry plays a crucial role in preserving their public urban forest, encompassing street trees, parks, and city-owned lots.
The Hudson Valley will receive over $11 million in federal funds from the Inflation Reduction Act to tackle the heat island effect and create tree planting initiatives. Championed by U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, these funds will not only increase tree cover but will also prioritize youth education and job training programs, including over $5.5 million administered by Groundwork Hudson that “will help grow curriculum and training in Yonkers’ Barack Obama School for Social Justice in Southwest Yonkers and at Westchester Community College that will lead to certification in urban forestry.” These initiatives underscore the growing awareness of the importance of urban forests in mitigating the impacts of extreme heat across New York State and beyond.
As our recent history has shown and scientists predict, the extreme heat is here to stay and it’s only going to get worse. An equitable urban forest in our cities is essential to protecting all our most vulnerable residents.