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KCUR 89.3: Why Kansas City officials are increasing tree coverage to combat global warming| KCUR 89.3

KCUR 89.3: Why Kansas City officials are increasing tree coverage to combat global warming| KCUR 89.3

More than a century ago, in the 1890s, Kansas City’s civic leaders hired landscape architect George Kessler to transform their filthy boomtown into an urban oasis of parks and boulevards. The idea was to create a “city within a park.”

Today, civic, government and nonprofit leaders are once again focused on the city’s greenery. This time, they are looking at trees to combat the effects of climate change. This is partly because Kessler and his benefactors loved the paved streets.

Numerous reports from the region and local level over the past few years have highlighted trees. These reports suggest a variety of ways to adapt and curb climate change. Kansas City’s Urban Forest Master PlanThis 2018 publication, focuses exclusively upon the tree canopy.

The plan calculated that, at approximately 31%, the city’s overall tree canopy was only about half of what it could be based upon the available acreage. But with approximately 60% of the city’s trees rated to be in fair or worse condition, the report said, the tree canopy could drop significantly in the coming decades.

The plan set a goal of 35% canopy coverage, urging a plan to replace the “significant amount of canopy” that would be lost within the next five to 10 years.

“Essentially,” the report said, “it is time to rebuild Kansas City’s urban forest and re-establish The City Within a Park.”

The Regional Climate Action PlanThe Mid-America Regional Council and Climate Action KC issued a report last January that noted the benefits of trees. They help to reduce the effects of rising temperatures due to climate change and capture greenhouse gasses that trap heat.

“Heat islands”These are especially important in urban areas such as Kansas City, where asphalt and buildings can be up to 7 degrees hotter than the outer lying areas during daylight, according the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“Increasing tree canopy coverage and other types of green space helps reduce urban heat islands, provides healthy spaces for residents to enjoy, cleans the air, and provides wildlife habitat,” the city noted in a draft Climate Protection & Resiliency PlanIt was published in March.

The final version of climate and resilience plan could be adopted by the City Council as soon as next month. More than 700 comments were received by the city on the draft plan.

The bur oak in the foreground is one of several trees the Heartland Tree Alliance has planted at Seven Oaks Park in Kansas City, Missouri. Mature trees in the park make it a rare cool spot in the neighborhood, according to heat data collected last year by the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

The bur oak in foreground is one among many trees that the Heartland Tree Alliance planted at Seven Oaks Park, Kansas City, Missouri. According to heat data collected by the University of Missouri, Kansas City last year, the park is a rare spot of cool in the neighborhood.

Trees can help to counter heat islands

The University of Missouri-Kansas City coordinated the event Heat mapping exerciseLast summer, Assistant Professor Fengpeng Sun led the federally funded effort.

A high-level overview shows temperatures recorded by volunteer drivers who drove routes through Kansas City during the morning, afternoon and evening. This includes temperatures for all the areas covered by the study. The city’s far south had generally cooler routes than other parts.

Sun said that it could take him until next year to be able provide detailed analysis due to the time and expense involved. He hopes that the data will provide validation for climate modeling in real-world situations.

Digital mapping of Sun’s data by local arborist Sarah Crowder has helped pinpoint the cooling benefits of oases like Seven Oaks Park, located at 39th Street and Kensington Avenue on Kansas City’s east side.

Crowder is the senior program manger at Bridging The Gap. This environmental nonprofit oversees Heartland Tree Alliance. Seven Oaks Park’s saplings are among the nearly 18,000 trees alliance volunteers that have been planted since 2005.

Sugar maples, pin oaks, and white ashes are the predominant species among the trees on public property within Kansas City, according to the city’s forest master plan. Seven Oaks Park’s Alliance plantings include a Japanese Pagoda, an American Linden, and three oak varieties.

The value of trees can also be measured in cents and dollars.

A MARC analysis found that shade trees — priced out at about $100 apiece — provide regional annual energy cost savings of approximately $21 million. The regional climate action program stated that shade trees could reduce the energy required for heating or cooling homes by up to 25%.

The city also calculated the cost savings due to trees. According to the forest master plan, they provide more than $28 millions annually in municipal services such as storm water management and energy reduction.

The plan also noted several other ways trees can benefit a community, citing research that they provide a “narrowing speed control measure” on city streets and can even calm adults and teens who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This is also included in the a 2006 publication22 benefits of urban street trees

Certain effects of climate change can be particularly devastating for communities with lower incomes. In households with less income, it can be more difficult to absorb rising heating and cooling bills.

But in comparing the urban tree canopy in Kansas City to census data, the forest master plan found “no significant difference in canopy between areas with differences in median household income or by population density.” In fact, areas with higher proportions of high school and associate degrees had more tree canopy than areas with more advanced degrees (bachelors and beyond).

Riverview was ranked first among nearly 250 cities based on their tree canopy coverage. The forest masterplan placed Riverview in Northland with more than two thirds of the area. The Crossroads Arts District, located near downtown, was at the opposite end with a tree cover of less than 1%.

Riverview has a healthy amount of greenspace within its borders. This includes a North Hills Park and a north-south Greenway. Crossroads landscapes are dominated by parking meters.

The average citizen intuitively knows the value of trees, said Tom Jacobs, director of MARC”s environmental programs.

“If you drive into a parking lot and you are looking for a place to park,” Jacobs said, “are you going to park in the middle of the sea of asphalt, or if there is a tree with a little bit of shade, are you going to park in the shade of the tree? Everybody parks in the shade of the tree first — everybody does.”

More than meets your eye

Crowder stated that one must be more careful when evaluating the overall benefits of the tree canopy. If you consider the long-term benefits to a neighborhood, such as the Historic Northeast area, the presence of trees may be misleading.

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A crowd is pictured at a climate change rally at Queen's Park on Sept. 27, 2019.

Crowder stated that the trees of this area are magnificent at the moment. “They are big, they are beautiful, they are glorious, and they are providing all kinds of benefits and things, but they are also nearing the end of their life, and there is not a lot of diversity in age.”

Crowder stated that engaging citizens is a key strategy to help develop strategies to improve the environment, and combat climate change. That’s true whether you are planting trees, or as Sun did with the UMKC project, using volunteers to drive around the city collecting heat data.

Crowder believes that generating excitement among residents is more important than seeing a tree grow and thrive in her world.

“There is a lot more to gauge success than just what the end result is,” she said. “It is getting people involved, getting them talking, having conversations, sharing with their friends and being a little bit of an advocate — ‘Guess what I learned today?’ or ‘I did this cool project.’”

“I think that is big — very big.”

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Crysta Heenthorne

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KCUR 89.3

This story is part a series about climate change in Kansas City, produced by the KC Media CollectiveThe KC Media Collective is an initiative that supports and enhances local journalism. The KC Media Collective comprises Kansas City PBS/Flatland (KCUR 89.3) Missouri Business Alert, Startland News. The Kansas City Beacon, American Public Square, and Missouri Business Alert.

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