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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Shawn Vestal: Some neighborhoods have it made in the shade – and some don’t

UPDATED: Tue., July 6, 2021

It was 109 degrees on a Wednesday afternoon in Hillyard.

Sierra Delgado, her aunt and her kids were in the front yard, trying to find a bit of relief in an above-ground pool and the dim shade of a Russian maple.

“We wouldn’t survive out here without this tree,” Delgado said, sitting in a lawn chair under the maple. “The pool’s in the direct sun, but us adults usually sit here in the shade. It helps.”

Up and down Rich Avenue, the view from her front yard was largely treeless and shimmering with heat rising off the street and sidewalk. In one of Spokane’s least-leafy neighborhoods, shade is a rare and precious commodity.

As an insufferable heat wave bore down last week, it exposed the shade gap in Spokane.

If you live in one of Spokane’s leafy, tree-covered neighborhoods, you live with the benefits of ample shade. The cooling effects of a tree canopy are a powerful check on hot weather, providing significant cooling for people, buildings and neighborhoods.

And if you live in one of Spokane’s less-leafy neighborhoods – which tend to be the city’s poorer precincts – you know the effect as well, as the direct sun bears down on homes, sidewalks, yards, everything.

“The data’s very clear that the neighborhoods that have less canopy density are also low-income neighborhoods,” said Chelsea Updegrove, the urban canopy director for The Lands Council. “If you look at the distribution of trees in Spokane, there’s a very clear gap between those areas where people have access to trees and those where they do not.”

There are many reasons one might want to remedy this, but right now, the top of the list is this: It is simply hotter without trees. Hotter outside. Hotter indoors. Hotter on the streets and sidewalks, and hotter late into the night.

That’s the reality in Hillyard and other neighborhoods in northeast Spokane, which have around a quarter of the tree canopy you find on the leafy South Hill.

As City Councilwoman Lori Kinnear put it, “Hillyard and the northeast section of town is naked, when it comes to trees.”

Last year, Kinnear and the City Council set a goal of reaching 40% canopy cover citywide by 2030, roughly doubling tree cover. The city included $50,000 in the budget for planting trees, and a cooperative effort between the city and The Lands Council, called SpoCanopy, has begun planting trees, focusing in on low-income, low-shade neighborhoods.

“Everyone should be able to access trees and the benefits they provide,” said Katie Kosanke, urban forester with the city of Spokane.

Heat islands

In the battle against heat, trees are mighty warriors. Tree cover cools homes and lawns, streets and sidewalks. As trees release water vapor, they provide significant cooling effects – the air directly below a tree can be as much as 25 degrees cooler, Kosanke said.

A shaded building is significantly less expensive to cool – it can bring down air conditioning bills by 10% to 15% or more. Shade lowers the surface temperature of objects by as much as 45%, according to National Geographic.

It makes it easier to air-condition a home, and makes an un-air-conditioned home more bearable. It reduces the need for watering, and helps reduce stormwater runoff. It protects streets and sidewalks and helps them last.

Trees also absorb carbon and other pollutants, increase home values and make neighborhoods more livable. The presence of street trees improves walkability and a sense of safety. There are also many benefits to a healthier urban canopy beyond easing the heat, ranging from increased property values, wind protection and noise buffering.

But trees – like income, education and lifespans – are not spread equally through the city. Prosperous neighborhoods have them in droves. Historic neighborhoods benefit from scads of hundred-year-old trees. Low-income and newer neighborhoods have many fewer trees.

The city’s tree survey shows an overall canopy cover of almost 21%. The Grandview/Thorpe, Manito/Cannon Hill and Rockwood areas have the most tree cover in the city, with canopy cover of around 40%. Northeast neighborhoods have the fewest trees in the city, with Shiloh Hills (11%), Hillyard (13%) and Chief Garry Park (12%) at the bottom.

These divisions are widespread in the country. National Geographic, in its new issue, examines the distribution of tree shade between wealthy and poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles – a disparity that also tracks racial patterns. Red-lined neighborhoods in L.A. and other cities have far fewer trees and suffer the blistering effects.

“You just don’t see green in areas that were red-lined,” an urban ecologist told the magazine.

Neighborhoods with lots of unshaded concrete and asphalt experience the “heat island effect.” Streets, sidewalks and buildings absorb and store heat, releasing it into the night and preventing cooling.

People who live on a heat island are literally living in a hotter world than those just blocks away who don’t.

On days like those we just experienced, this effect is life-threatening.

‘Saving our butts’

The SpoCanopy project planted trees in the Logan and West Central neighborhoods last year, and it’s aiming to plant 150 in northeast Spokane this fall.

Lands Council volunteers will canvass neighborhoods to find places where trees may be planted – and where a resident is willing to help water and maintain the trees in the early years that are crucial to its survival, Kosanke said.

“The trees we plant are trees that residents want,” Updegrove said. “We’ve knocked on their door and they’ve said, ‘Yes, we want it, yes, we’ll take care of it.’ ”

They look to plant in rights-of-way, and are also examining neighborhoods on a block-by-block basis to identify places where the “social value” of adding trees would be high – such as around bus stops or routes where kids might walk to and from school.

These are investments in the future, and it will take 10 to 15 years for trees to reach full maturity. But the trees begin providing other benefits before that. Kosanke said planting a tree on the west side of your home can result in estimated energy savings of about 3% after five years. After 15 years, the savings rise to 12%, she said.

Back on Rich Avenue last week, Delgado talked about the importance of her maple tree in helping her family bear the heat. Her kids were in their swimsuits, everyone had cool drinks, and lawn chairs were set in the shade.

Delgado said her tree helps keep her home cool during the day – shading the whole house in the mornings, and the eastern half of the home in the afternoon – and gives them an escape during the hottest days, when her AC unit was strained beyond its capacity.

“It’s saving our butts right now,” she said, “in multiple ways.”

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