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Cleveland kicks off program to reduce urban heat islands in underserved communities

Mayor Justin Bibb looking at a heat monitor under a canopy of trees
Zaria Johnson
Ideastream Public Media
Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb and Student Conservation Association crew leader Kamie Reeser observe the temperature reading on the Kestrel heat monitor at Cleveland's Community Forestry Corps kick-off on Tuesday, July 9th, 2024. The city hopes to use the heat mapping data to better determine areas of need during ongoing efforts to increase tree canopy.

The city of Cleveland on Tuesday kicked off its participation in a national urban forestry collaborative to expand equitable tree canopy and reduce temperatures city-wide.

The Community Forestry Corps Program will use portable heat sensors to determine the differences in temperatures in shaded areas and areas with limited tree canopy.

"One of the most exciting parts of this Cleveland pilot is that we were able to work really close in community with residents to identify the very nodal places in the community where folks saw ... an opportunity for impact, also as areas that were experiencing high heat hazard," said Samira Malone, director of the Urban Forestry Initiative at the Center for Regenerative Solutions.

The project is a collaborative partnership with the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, the Student Conservation Association and the Center for Regenerative Solutions.

Trees help to reduce rates of asthma and cardiovascular disease, and full-grown trees provide shade that can cool down communities and reduce utility costs indoors. In Cleveland, a healthy baseline for tree canopy is around 30%, but in February, the city's canopy was closer to 18% with significantly less canopy in the city’s low-income, predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods.

An aerial image of Cleveland's Central neighborhood showing many houses and cars, but few trees.
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
An aerial image of Cleveland's Central neighborhood on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024. In Cleveland, many historically redlined communities like Central lack tree canopy, which can negatively affect mental and physical health.

Read more: Northeast Ohio cities work to reverse history and impacts of tree canopy loss

The Community Forestry Corps Program will prioritize equitable canopy solutions in underserved communities to increase tree canopy and reduce the number of urban heat islands in the city, said Brett KenCairn, founder of the Center for Regenerative Solutions Founder. Heat islands are created by areas filled primarily with concrete, sidewalks and roadways with hotter temperatures than areas with greenspace and tree canopy.

"We know that our living environments are not equitably distributed; that in many of our communities, we do not have adequate coverage from the blistering heat," KenCairn said. "We do not have adequate ground cover to absorb flood moisture. We do not have adequate biodiversity to create healthy ecosystems. We need to create more equitable distribution of these critical living infrastructures."

Bringing about an equitable expansion of the city's tree canopy would cool down Cleveland's neighborhoods, while also making the city safer and healthier, said Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb.

"The data tells us that in cities and neighborhoods where there's a lack of a robust tree canopy, you have higher rates of violent crime, higher rates of heart disease, higher rates of asthma," Bibb said. "So the work we're doing today is not just about climate change and environmental justice, but this is about racial justice, economic justice, and making sure that the promise of our neighborhoods can be real for everybody who lives in the great city of Cleveland."

Student Conservation Association Community Program Manager for Northeast Ohio Elyria Little demonstrates the Kestrel heat monitor to two attendees.
Zaria Johnson
Ideastream Public Media
Student Conservation Association Community Program Manager for Northeast Ohio Elyria Little demonstrates the Kestrel heat monitor to attendees at Cleveland's Community Forestry Corps kick-off on Tuesday, July 9th, 2024.

Crew leaders conducted two heat mapping demonstrations: one in a shaded area at Luke Easter Park and another nearby in the parking lot.

Though the crews saw only a two-degree difference, Student Conservation Association Crew Leader Kamie Reeser said the difference can be as great as 10 degrees on hot, sunny days which increases the risk of heat stress.

"Even if you're walking to your job or having to walk to a bus route, it would just ... immediately kind of put a heat stress on you that ... an average person driving or coming out of their house, or working from home or anything like those type of things."

The city will also host youth and young adult cohorts to train them for the environmental workforce, Bibb said, better preparing the city for ongoing climate-friendly projects.

"We have the next generation of young people that are going to be inspired to really address environmental justice all across our city," Bibb said. "I want to tell you why that's important: because when you ask young people, 'What are the biggest issues facing our nation?' one of the biggest issues they talk about is a need for our country to address both climate and environmental justice."

The city of Cleveland will receive $3.4 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to support the pilot program. Crews will be monitoring the Buckeye neighborhood for the next six weeks.

Zaria Johnson is a reporter/producer at Ideastream Public Media covering the environment.