During the Inland Northwest’s long heat, a Vision of Shade Cities

By Steve Austin, JD | ASLA | Assistant Clinical Professor of Landscape Architecture, Washington State University

A heat wave unlike any other has begun in the Inland Northwest.  This is the long-term heat wave accompanying the accelerating climate crisis, which is caused primarily by the burning of fossil fuels.  Global heating is happening, despite presidential claims that it is a Chinese hoax, despite local politicians who deny its existence as incompatible with a “freedom agenda,” and despite many people’s disinterest.  Regardless and urgently, in the face of reality, we need to create “Shade Cities” to ensure the region’s livability over the coming decades. 

It is getting hotter, faster.  Globally, eighteen of the last nineteen years have been the hottest on record, and the heating over the past four years has been “exceptional.”In the Inland Northwest, the average annual temperature has already increased by nearly two degrees Fahrenheit.  In the last five years, 75% of months have been warmer than normal, many much warmer.  The most recent record coldest month was thirty-six years ago.  

This is right now. Unless we stop burning fossil fuels very soon, the future will be even hotter.  

If we don’t stop, reasonable estimates are that the Inland Northwest’s average daily summer temperature could increase from 83 to at least 90 degrees over the next sixty or so years, well within the lifetime of a person born today.  Extremely hot days will also increase.  Currently, the region has about four extremely hot days — 95 degrees and above — per year.  If trends continue, there could be as many forty – nearly a month and a half’s worth – every summer.  Exacerbating this, the urban heat island effect across the region could additionally increase temperatures as much as 20 degrees above that, even after sunset.  The bottom line is that even “normal” summers will become incredibly hot. 

This will impact the region in many negative ways.   Dealing with extreme heat will cost local businesses and individuals money, summer outdoor work will become less productive and possibly life threating at times, and there will be increased health concerns, especially in elderly and youth. 

Unfortunately, the communities of the region do not appear to be anticipating either the heat wave or the associated impacts. So much needs to be done, from new city planning paradigms, to connecting vulnerable populations with improved social and health services, to ensuring the electric grid’s reliability. 

Fortunately, there is one basic action that can help us adapt to the hotter reality:  planting trees. By starting to plant trees now, and absolutely everywhere possible, they will be mature when the heat wave reaches new extremes. 

Planting trees creates multiple victories for communities. Trees improve air quality, filter stormwater, add beauty, sequester carbon, and most importantly for the heat wave, provide shade.  New research shows that cities with robust urban forests are cooler by as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit.  Further, access to shade in the increasingly hot time is a social justice issue.   Poorer neighborhoods have much less tree cover than their wealthier neighbors. Lack of shade must not become another indicator of inequality in our communities:  access to it will be as vital as access to water and health care.

Communities in the region should begin developing “Shade City” plans to plant millions of trees across the region.  Crucially, these plans should focus on creating diverse urban forests with climate appropriate trees and not simply a monoculture. Trees should be planted in parks and near schools, churches and hospitals, factories and streams, along streets and trails, and in so many other places. Unnecessary pavement should be ripped up to make way for trees.  And of course every homeowner should add to the forest. 

To accomplish the Shade City vision, funding for planting and maintenance as well as a sense of institutional and personal stewardship must become part of the region’s way of life. Positively too, this is economic development – think tree nurseries – and a job creation opportunity: imagine a Shade City Corps, modeled on the Civilian Conservation Corps, to plant and maintain trees. 

Lamentably, no community in the region is as yet contemplating such massive tree plantings. For example,the Spokane city council recently voted to support increasing tree canopy in the city.  These plans would increase tree coverage by 7%, to a total of 30% across the city.  This is a good step, supported by many hard working people; but much, much more is needed. 

Shade Cities can be our gift to the future.  And even if a disbelief in the climate crisis is central to your dream of creating a new US state in the region, please help plant trees, just in case. The climate crisis won’t stop at new state lines, regardless of what the residents believe. That’s not throwing shade, that’s pleading for some. 

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