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Cities look to trees to combat heat islands, but growth is slow


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Cristina Velazquez says she never played outside as a kid because it was too hot and the parks were too dangerous.

Velazquez, 24, grew up in Westlake, a densely populated area in Central Los Angeles that like many inner-city areas had little trees or green space. The community is mostly Latino and more than 20 percent of its residents live in poverty. When she took bus rides to the other side of the city, she remembers seeing children playing together under the shade of trees.

“When you watch TV and you see a program that has little kids playing on the streets, that is not something that I had ever experienced,” said Velazquez, who was part of Los Angeles’ Tree Ambassador Program, which recruits people directly from communities that need more trees to do environmental outreach within their own neighborhoods. “It is a massive difference. Like you can really tell just how different even like a few trees can make in terms of your childhood.”

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Many major American cities, including Los Angeles, Denver, Phoenix, Chicago and Boston are working to bridge the equity gap in major tree canopy coverage through volunteer tree-planting events, community partnerships and green job programs.

But those efforts face challenges, including several physical, social and financial barriers that stand in the way of making tree canopy coverage equitable.

Physical barriers tend to be the trickiest and priciest obstacle. City planners and urban foresters have to navigate the built infrastructure to make room for trees. Sometimes this involves cutting into pavement, which is more expensive than planting trees where there is readily available green space.

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