Can urban reforestation help lower rising temperatures?

This past summer was the hottest on record in more than a century. To shield against rising temperatures, many cities around the country are taking a closer look at trees, which have been shown to cool the air by as much as 10 degrees. Special Correspondent Karla Murthy reports from Cleveland — a city once known as 'The Forest City' — to take a look at efforts to restore its once-prolific tree canopy.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    This past summer was the hottest on record in 126 years in the contiguous united states. To shield against rising temperatures, many cities across the country are looking to trees, which have been shown to cool the air by as much as ten degrees. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Karla Murthy reports from Cleveland on that city's efforts to increase its tree canopy.

  • Colby Sattler:

    We do want to talk about the importance of trees, how to maintain them, just give you some tips and tricks and a few pointers.

  • Karla Murthy:

    On a late summer day in August, residents in the Old Brooklyn neighborhood of Cleveland have come out to learn about trees.

  • Courtney Blashka:

    Most people like to plant them and forget them. You have to really baby them over the first three or four year-mark, then they start to take off.

  • Karla Murthy:

    Their neighborhood community organization will be planting 100 trees this fall after receiving a grant from the county. To get a free tree in their yard, homeowners have to attend one of these workshops.

  • Colby Sattler:

    Ultimately, these trees need to get into the ground.

  • Karla Murthy:

    It's all part of a citywide effort to dramatically increase the tree canopy. Cleveland was once proudly known as the Forest City. But since the 1950s, it's lost about half its tree canopy. Today, it continues to lose nearly 100 acres of tree cover every year.

  • Sandra Albro:

    So we don't have a lot of trees to begin with and we're losing them faster than we're planting them currently.

  • Karla Murthy:

    Sandra Albro is the Director of Community Partnerships at Holden Forest and Gardens, one of the founding organizations of the Cleveland Tree Coalition, which has grown to over 40 public, private and community groups since it was formed in 2015.

  • Sandra Albro:

    Currently we are at about 18 percent tree cover for the city. So that means that slightly under one fifth of the city is shaded by trees.

  • Karla Murthy:

    And what is the ideal number to– to hit in terms of percentage.

  • Sandra Albro:

    In urban areas, benefits really start to hit a tipping point at around 30 percent tree cover.

  • Karla Murthy:

    Those benefits include keeping neighborhoods cooler, lowering energy bills and absorbing heat-trapping carbon-dioxide from the air. trees also capture stormwater runoff, improve air quality and increase property values.

    To reap those benefits, the Coalition developed a plan to reach 30 percent tree cover across the city by the year 2040. But reaching that goal is more complicated than just planting more trees and will take a massive city-wide effort.

  • Sandra Albro:

    So, this is an aerial shot of Cleveland.

  • Karla Murthy:

    Albro says the city should first focus on areas that need trees the most.

  • Sandra Albro:

    Here you can see a map of Cleveland with, in terms of urban heat stress. In the central area where you don't have as many trees, a lighter green here, we also see that those areas tend to be the hottest already and are at most risk for deadly temperatures with climate change.

  • Karla Murthy:

    That central area is where Samira Malone lives and works.

  • Samira Malone:

    I actually lived right over here.

  • Karla Murthy:

    Malone is a neighborhood planning manager at Midtown Cleveland, a member of the Tree Coalition. The Midtown neighborhood near downtown has a 6.5 percent tree canopy, much lower than the city's average of 18 percent. That lack of tree cover contributes to what's called 'the heat island effect.'

  • Karla Murthy:

    We're standing in a heat island.

  • Samira Malone:

    We are.

  • Karla Murthy:

    It is only like 10:00 o'clock in the morning. I mean, what does this feel like right now?

  • Samira Malone:

    It feels very hot. It feels very soupy to be in my business casual. (laughs) But, yeah, this is the reality of so many residents. This area, folks use a lot of public transportation. So people are walking up and down the street to get to the bus. People are walking to work up and down these areas that leave very few refuge for actual shade.

  • Karla Murthy:

    In fact "heat islands" in downtown Cleveland can be up to 20 degrees hotter than in suburban areas with more trees just outside the city limits. Malone says the lack of trees also correlates to many health issues. Residents in this area have some of the highest rates of asthma and heart disease. She says these disparities reflect a broader pattern of racial discrimination and decades of disinvestment.

  • Samira Malone:

    Specifically in our neighborhood, these census tracks that have the lowest level of tree canopy also have the highest percentage of black residents. And that's not something that's just a coincidence.

  • Karla Murthy:

    Malone has been developing a tree plan which will be implemented this fall. Her organization was recently awarded a grant from the county to plant 175 trees per year for the next two years.

  • Samira Malone:

    The thing that's beautiful about this project is that we're not just haphazardly throwing trees in the ground right now. Like I mentioned before, there's been an economic disinvestment and tree infrastructure in black and brown neighborhoods. So this is really an act of racial restorative justice.

  • Karla Murthy:

    Just east of Midtown, a tree planting event is being held by the Famicos Foundation, a community non-profit. Today four trees are being planted in a vacant lot to create an outdoor learning center for the school across the street. Over the last two years, Famicos and its partners have planted over 250 trees throughout the three neighborhoods it serves.

  • Erica Burnett:

    Thank you guys for coming out and seeing what's happening here today.

  • Karla Murthy:

    Erica Burnett is the Director of Community Building and Engagement. She says getting trees in the ground is the easy part. Taking care of them afterward is a lot more challenging, especially during the first year when trees have to be watered regularly.

  • Erica Burnett:

    So each tree had to get five gallons of water after planting. And we had to do that repeatedly. So we were like, open up hydrants, fill up buckets and walk the buckets literally up and down the street to water trees. So I was like, 'oh, this is a lot of work.' But in order for that tree to survive, it was absolutely necessary to do that work.

  • Karla Murthy:

    Burnett says part of their efforts to increase the city's tree canopy is to encourage residents to plant trees in their own yards, but all that work and the costs for watering and pruning trees are a big concern, especially for the many low-income families that live in the area.

  • Erica Burnett:

    It's about basic needs and basic survival. I have to choose between food on my table versus a tree. I'm going to choose food on my table. So that's one of the biggest struggles, is to get people to take on new trees.

  • Karla Murthy:

    While yards might not be as accessible, there's no shortage of vacant lots like where this tree planting is taking place. In fact, there are over 30,000 of them across the city.

  • Lizzie Sords:

    This is the perfect piece of land for trees. And there are little pockets like this all over Cleveland that we can put a lot of trees on.

  • Karla Murthy:

    Lizzie Sords is an urban forester with the Western Reserve Land Conservancy – another founding member of the Tree Coalition. This city-owned lot known as Jack Rabbit Hill had been vacant for over 20 years. It was overgrown and filled with trash. Last year, the Land Conservancy cleaned up the site and planted 85 trees here.

  • Lizzie Sords:

    These elm trees I was really excited about putting here. They're fast-growing, they're native. They provide great wildlife habitat and they cast awesome shade, provide really good canopy cover.

  • Karla Murthy:

    Decades from now, this baby elm tree could grow into a fully mature tree, like this one.

  • Lizzie Sords:

    Tackling these bigger projects is what's going to help us get to our canopy goals rather than planting one tree in a yard. And I do think those are important, but these are the projects where we'll see canopy grow.

  • Jenny Spencer:

    When people think about trees, you think about tree planting and how gratifying that is to plant a new tree. But what we've learned is that it's just as important to preserve the existing canopy, the mature tree canopy.

  • Karla Murthy:

    Jenny Spencer is a City Councilperson on the West side of Cleveland and created a Tree Canopy Steering Committee for her Ward. Despite efforts to plant more trees, the Committee organized a walk for residents to learn about the loss of trees in the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood.

  • Phil Kidd:

    There are two areas where trees were currently planted all the way up until 2016 and those are now gone.

  • Karla Murthy:

    A variety of factors contribute to tree loss. There's disease and weather-related losses. Utility and infrastructure projects also contribute to the loss of trees.

  • Jenny Spencer:

    Any time you hear concrete work, sidewalks, curbs, kind of the alarm bells should go off because those are the major things that will damage trees.

  • Karla Murthy:

    But she says there are simple measures the city has done with very few resources to mitigate that damage. In 2018, the city passed an ordinance to put tree protections in place during development projects. Sidewalks had to be replaced during a gas line replacement in Spencer's ward and were re-poured six inches narrower to protect the trees.

  • Jenny Spencer:

    So you can kind of see here even this– this distance to what it was before and what it is now. I mean, it's so minimal. It's so minimal. And yet our– our city, the city of Cleveland's Urban Forester said, yeah, that will really help.

  • Karla Murthy:

    And this was something that didn't cost any extra money, right?

  • Jenny Spencer:

    No. I mean, it was like this 'aha' moment where everyone realized this is, this is so easy. Why hadn't we thought of it before?

  • Karla Murthy:

    Since the tree coalition began, the City of Cleveland has committed one million dollars each year for the next ten years towards maintaining existing trees and planting new trees. But according to the Cleveland Tree Plan, achieving 30 percent tree cover will require not only preserving the existing canopy, but planting over 300,000 new trees in the next decade.

  • Karla Murthy:

    It just seems like a huge undertaking and a monumental goal to reach. I mean, how feasible is it?

  • Sandra Albro:

    The number is daunting for sure. But having a number has forced us to have very realistic conversations about what it will really take. I think it's important to confront that, but not let it stop us from continuing to work on the problem.

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