Solutions for Cities – From Nature

The Nature Conservancy
July 1, 2016
By Laura Huffman & Steve Adler

une 20 was the official first day of summer – but as Texans, we’d be forgiven for not realizing it. In Austin, that date marked the 15th consecutive day of 90+-degree days, leaving many to wonder if we are in for another record-breaking year. According to NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2015 was the hottest year on record globally; in fact, worldwide, 15 of the 17 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000.

As mayor of Austin, one of the fastest growing cities in the United States, and as Texas state director of The Nature Conservancy, the nation’s leading environmental organization, we recognize those numbers are a canary in the coal mine.

Lawmakers, city planners and community leaders across the country must recognize that protecting people means helping cities adapt to these extreme weather patterns. That’s why we worked together recently to craft an important resolution for the United States Conference of Mayors’ 84th Annual Meeting. Mayor Greg Fischer of Louisville, Kentucky, sponsored the resolution; myself and West Sacramento, California Mayor Christopher Cabaldon joined as co-sponsors.

Adopted unanimously, the Reducing Urban Heat and Protecting Human Health with Green Space resolution recognizes the critical intersection between the environment, health and wellbeing, and affordability issues, as well as the importance of protecting our community.

Extreme heat is one of the greatest climate-related threats to human health, killing more people in the United States on average each year than hurricanes, floods, tornadoes and lightening combined. Children younger than four, people 65 and older, and those who are overweight or ill are often the most susceptible to heat-related conditions. Low-income families and communities of color are also disproportionately affected.

It’s a disturbing reality for cities of every size and demographic composition—and with more than 85 percent of Texans living in cities, it’s not an issue we can afford to ignore.

Building materials such as concrete and asphalt absorb and retain substantially more heat than areas with vegetative cover. That fact, combined with the loss of trees, urban construction and other factors all contribute to urban heat, which keeps cities warmer than surrounding green space. On a hot, sunny day – the kind Texas is known for—rooftop and pavement temperatures can be 50 to 90 degrees hotter than the air.

But here’s the good news: Nature offers some elegant solutions. Healthy urban tree canopies provide shade to homes, businesses, roads and parking lots. Shading a piece of concrete or asphalt can actually reduce its temperature by as much as 45 degrees. In addition, trees store millions of tons of carbon each year and help scrub pollution from the air. Their root systems filter and purify rainwater, helping to remove contaminants like oil, grease and litter before it flows into nearby waterways. And studies show that trees and green space may help reduce crime, enhance a sense of community safety, increase property values, decrease stress and lower blood pressure.

Locally, we’ve long recognized the importance of Austin’s tree canopy. The United States Forest Service recently estimated that Austin’s 33.8 million trees remove approximately 92,000 tons of carbon from the air each year and reduce residential energy costs by more than $18 million annually.

Read more at the Nature Conservancy.