By Michele S. Byers
Stand in the sun on a hot summer afternoon and wilt. Step into the shade and feel instant relief.
Now imagine places without shade. Many New Jersey cities have too much pavement and concrete, and not enough trees with leafy canopies. Urban neighborhoods without shade trees can be up to 12 degrees hotter than nearby treed suburbs.
As heat waves scorch the country this summer, the importance of trees in urban landscapes cannot be overstated.
A New York Times article recently described mature trees as “stationary superheroes” that defend against extreme heat – which kills more people in the United States than tornadoes or hurricanes.
According to a 2020 study by the National Biotechnology Information Center, high temperatures are a major cause of avoidable, premature deaths. Heat was a contributing factor in as many as 12,000 deaths a year during the 2010s, the study found, and it may lead to even higher numbers with a warming climate.
In addition, research shows that living in areas of excessive heat, with limited green space, can negatively impact people’s mental health and ability to process information.
Trees make urban neighborhoods healthier and more livable, says Meredith Brown, coordinator of the Urban Airshed Reforestation Program of the New Jersey Tree Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to planting trees in New Jersey cities.
Since 1998, the tree foundation has contributed nearly 257,000 urban trees to this state we’re in.
After a tree planting, she said, “the impacts are almost immediate. You can see this pop of greenery in the neighborhood. As the trees grow, they are going to shade the sidewalk, absorb storm water, clean up the air and soften the landscape.”
Tree-lined streets also foster neighborhood pride and can entice residents to get outside and exercise.
The New Jersey Tree Foundation provides trees for free to neighborhood groups, schools and residents who request them.
“We focus on the most urban places in New Jersey,” said Meredith. “It’s completely voluntary. Residents have to sign off and say they want a tree in front of their home and will care for it. When we work with residents, we ask that a minimum of 10 trees be planted, which is a good chunk of that block. But we can accommodate as big a need as there is.”
The New Jersey Tree Foundation’s efforts to improve urban quality of life may soon be boosted by new bills sponsored by New Jersey Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker.
In June, Coleman introduced the Saving Hazardous and Declining Environments (SHADE) Act, which would plant trees in formerly “redlined” neighborhoods and other overburdened communities.
Redlining, a now-illegal discriminatory housing policy, historically denied investment and resources like insurance and home loans in predominantly minority neighborhoods. The lasting effects of these policies can be seen today in city neighborhoods bare of trees and very hot in summer.
A 2020 study examined 108 urban areas in the United States and found that almost all formerly redlined areas experienced higher land surface temperatures than non-redlined areas, due to reduced tree cover and increased asphalt and concrete surfaces.
Redlined areas are on average 4.68 degrees warmer than in non-redlined areas, with discrepancies as high as 12.6 degrees.
“For almost 100 years, minority communities in the United States have been the target of redlining,” said Coleman. “Significant evidence has shown the negative environmental effects of redlining and demonstrates the crucial need for the reduction of temperatures in urban areas.”
Not only do trees provide direct shade – reducing the amount of solar radiation hitting heat-absorbing surfaces – they also decrease surrounding air temperatures through evapotranspiration.
This is the process through which trees absorb water from the ground and release it into the air in the form of cooling vapor.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, shaded areas are cooler than those in direct sun by 20 to 45 degrees and evapotranspiration can further drop temperatures by 2 to 9 degrees.
And even more help could come from the Climate Stewardship Act, co-sponsored by Booker.
The Climate Stewardship Act would support voluntary climate stewardship practices on more than 100 million acres of farmland, plant billions of trees to revive deforested landscapes and expand urban tree cover, re-establish the Civilian Conservation Corps, restore more than two million acres of coastal wetlands, and invest in renewable energy.
This summer, take notice of the trees around you and appreciate their magic cooling power. All New Jersey neighborhoods deserve to enjoy the improved health and well-being provided by shade trees.
For more information about the New Jersey Tree Foundation, go to www.njtreefoundation.org
Michele S. Byers is the executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.