Urban tree planning

June 2021 holds the unpleasant record as the hottest June in the history of Phoenix. According to the National Weather Service, the average temperature through the month was 95.3 degrees Fahrenheit, beating out the record of 94.8 F, set in 2013 and 2016. 

Opinions differ on why our temperatures are hotter than ever. One thing we do agree on: it’s hot out there for a good chunk of the year. Solutions to mitigate the heat and its dangerous effects are in the works. One positive solution in progress is the creation of healthier urban forests. 

“An urban forest is a collection of woody vegetation in an urban environment,” said Nicole Rodriguez, a certified arborist and community advocate who serves on the Urban Heat Island and Tree and Shade Subcommittee for the City of Phoenix. “While urban forests are infrastructure, they’re a public health infrastructure that is necessary to combat urban heat island issues and make Phoenix a more livable city.” 

The concept behind healthy urban forests is simple. Freeways, cars, buildings, and roads, the tangible, modern items that make our city a city, radiate heat, and that heat creates an urban heat island. Urban forests, which are most often comprised of a collection of connected trees (as in natural forests), band together and provide shade, helping lower temperatures. While shrubs are also beneficial, a cluster of trees offers more shade. 

“What makes a healthy urban forest is when there is connectivity among trees through public parks, homeowners and businesses having trees on their property and trees on our right-of-ways along the roadway,” Rodriguez said. “When all these trees are connected, they help one another out by being more viable.” 

In addition to reducing extreme heat and keeping the area cooler, healthy and viable trees in urban forests also help maintain soil moisture content. For landscapes, that translates to a reduction in municipal water use for watering purposes, improving the community’s environmental impact. In the same way houseplants help clean residential air, urban forests help remove pollutants from the environment. 

While people may not think that forests and deserts go together, Rodriguez promises they can be quite compatible. 

“Our surrounding desert is a natural environment,” Rodriguez said, “while nothing about our city is natural. So, for Phoenix to be a healthy, comfortable place to live, we must implement ideas like urban forests. You can have an urban forest in a desert environment when you use desert-adapted trees.” 

She further explained that “desert-adapted” doesn’t necessarily mean native trees. Trees can be sourced from anywhere in the world that has a similar dry climate. Phoenix has a diverse group of trees to choose from. Rodriguez suggests using appropriate trees from areas in China and Australia. Selecting varieties that won’t disturb urban fixtures, like sidewalks, is another necessary consideration. 

In 2010, Phoenix enacted the Tree and Shade Masterplan to increase the urban forest tree canopy to 25 percent city coverage by 2030. Unfortunately, the city is nowhere near meeting that goal. A 2014 study (the last study taken on the subject) estimated coverage at only nine percent. 

“We’re trying our best to keep Phoenix on track with those goals that are stipulated in the Tree and Shade Masterplan of 2010,” Rodriguez said. “We’re putting a lot of energy and focus into this to get it done and to make Phoenix a more habitable city now and for future generations.”

In 2018, a study was conducted in Arcadia to develop a design concept for implementing bicycle and pedestrian safety improvements on 56th St. from Thomas to Camelback Road, encompassing about 1.5 miles.

The project introduced various changes to the area, including bicycle and pedestrian gaps along the corridor, fixing utility and storm drainage issues, and opportunities for green infrastructure and enhanced landscape features. The proposal also promoted safe routes to school connections.

According to Arcadia Camelback Mountain Neighborhood Association President Tristahn Schaub, the latest update was early this summer. The city of Phoenix has accepted DOT funds for the project, and Schaub said that the funds must be used by 2024.

“My concern is that to get moving, the project would require a year’s worth of infrastructure plans and some additional community meetings, and COVID has stalled a lot of that,” Schaub said. 

The City of Phoenix website states that plans to start designing the project will happen in fall 2021.