For local communities, combating climate change starts with more plants, less pavement
Almost a year before the heat dome hit this summer, officials in King County began documenting how the built environment causes some places to get hotter than others.
Dark surfaces like asphalt and pavement absorb and reflect the heat, while trees and shrubs provide cooling shade, leading to what some refer to as the “urban heat island effect.”
Lara Whitely Binder, who manages climate preparedness for King County, said the county’s new heat map shows the so-called heat island effect, highlighting which specific areas in the county retain more heat.
It’s “this visual representation of the fact that – yeah – these temperatures do vary, considerably,” Whitely Binder said.
Areas in King County with more pavement were up to 20 degrees hotter on the map, according to measurements taken during a heat event late last July. Whitely Binder said the map serves as a reminder that more needs to be done to make certain areas in the county cooler.
“We need to be looking at how we design homes, how we design neighborhoods ... to be able to provide refuge during heat events,” Whitely Binder said.
Three years ago, Tacoma also documented how some parts of the city are hotter than others and created its own heat map.
"So some areas that may be in North Tacoma saw temperatures that were up to 14 degrees cooler than areas kind of where we’re standing today – central, south Tacoma and the east side,” said Mike Carey, Tacoma’s urban forester, in a recent tour of the city.
Carey, who helped create Tacoma’s heat map, said a big part of his job is increasing tree coverage, which can provide more shade and healthier conditions for everyone.
“It's not just, how hot does that temperature get during the day, but its inability to cool off at night makes it so that people who are living in those areas are constantly suffering from heat exhaustion,” Carey said.
The constant heat exhaustion lowers life expectancy, even without a heat dome event.
Neighborhoods like the one where 69-year-old Terry Duncan lived can get very hot because of their proximity to a major arterial roadway and freeway. Duncan’s home faces Tacoma Mall Boulevard and Interstate 5. He died there sitting in his living room, while his two fans were still running.
Carey said the combination of roads in Duncan’s neighborhood is a recipe for air pollution and heat. Car exhaust fills the air with toxic particles. The paved surfaces and asphalt absorb and radiate heat. And there aren’t many trees.
Racist lenders redlined Duncan’s neighborhood in the 1940s, so local agencies neglected it. Carey said Tacoma’s historically redlined areas have about 15 percent less tree cover than those that were not. Carey said he’d like to see hundreds of trees planted in the areas around Duncan's house – to cool and help clean the air.
“Not only do we see in those underserved neighborhoods less tree canopy to combat things like climate change and urban heat island effect, we also see less opportunity. We have to remove that asphalt … in order to be available for green space,” Carey said.
Six years ago, about a hundred volunteers of various ages did just that a few miles away in Tacoma’s McKinley business district. Using borrowed crowbars and wheelbarrows, they ripped out some 2,000 square feet of pavement and replaced it with plants and trees.
Tara Scheidt recruited and organized the volunteers. She’s vice president of the city’s Eastside Neighborhood Advisory Council.
“It was so cool to see so many people that wanted to make a change and make it better,” Scheidt said.
Scheidt said trees and plants have transformed the neighborhood.
“You can smell the lavender. There's tons of lavender … beautiful. It just completely softened the entire landscape, changed it completely,” she said.
It looks pretty wild for a business district. The McKinley Depave project managers chose fast-growing ground cover and tall grasses to anchor the soil. There are Austrian pines, sumac and red oak trees — kind of all jumbled together.
But Carey, the urban forester, said the new plants are cooling things down, at least a little bit. It’ll get even better, he said, if the people who put them in keep taking care of them.
“Yeah, it is a little chaotic-looking. But, you know, it's one of those things that I've come to love,” Carey said.
Carey said Tacoma has supported similar projects in other neighborhoods. The city also provides incentives and free trees to homeowners to help increase the urban canopy. Tacoma officials want to reach 30 percent coverage by 2030. They’re at 20 percent now – the lowest in the Puget Sound region.
Tacoma has just developed a tree equity map within its urban forestry program, to help the city better understand where increasing the canopy can have the greatest impact.
The goal in King County is planting and preserving 3 million trees over the next five years. Its climate planning efforts go back decades. You can find evidence in places you wouldn’t expect.
In South Park, Rivercity SkatePark recently celebrated the grand opening of a new skate plaza, art wall and rain gardens. Kim Schwarzkopf helped make it happen. She said the planners have always considered the environment.
"It's super important to us. We're building these concrete structures, but we're also keeping in mind, like, how to keep it green as well. So we planted most of the trees that you see here,” Schwarzkopf said.
That was 15 years ago. Now, evergreens surround this colorful skate park alongside Highway 99.
“They're pretty tall now. They're probably like 20, 30 feet maybe, and in a prime skating area, actually. But we decided it was important to keep those big trees for the shade,” Schwarzkopf said.
Next to a wall covered with climbing vines, Janelle Fontilea enjoyed the party. She lives in Federal Way but grew up in South Park. She remembers raising money to create a safe place for young skaters like herself – and all the planting they did.
“It's just what South Park does,” Fontilea said in a recent interview.
Fontilea said people here try to improve things for the future and pass along shared values. She lived through the June heat wave without air conditioning. That got her thinking about climate change.
“I'm a firm believer that trees help with the environment and cooling the earth down,” she said. “It'd be awesome to have some nice shade over our skate park, and the trees will definitely do that.”
We know we need more trees. But even in places like King County and Tacoma, where authorities have ambitious goals for the canopy, planting and preserving enough of them is an uphill battle.
Whitely Binder with King County’s climate action team said she hopes people don’t see the heat dome event as a freak of nature.
“Even though we know we're vulnerable to heat — to have the level of mortality, to see the level of infrastructure damage, to see the way our emergency medical system was struggling to keep up with the inflow of patients — it really drives home the fact that we need to be ready,” she said.
Whether it happens again this summer — or 10 years from now.