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Building an urban forest should ease the inequities of Salt Lake City’s heat island effect

Liberty Park, facing north, urban forest, June 11, 2022
Jim Hill
Tree cover on the east side of Salt Lake City is much denser than on the city's west side. Liberty Park is one of many shaded urban oases to the east of the I-15 dividing line.

Temperatures in Salt Lake City are climbing and that will impact some residents more than others. Amy May, the executive director of the nonprofit TreeUtah sees it as a result of the city’s inequitable urban forest.

“Kind of like everything in Salt Lake, the west side neighborhoods have been neglected over time,” she said.

Trees improve air and water quality, lead to better mental health, lower energy consumption and reduce heat — but tree cover west of I-15 is much sparser than on the east side.

With few trees and a high concentration of pavement, buildings and other surfaces, the average ground temperature is significantly higher than in most other areas.

People of color and lower-income residents also disproportionately live in areas with fewer trees, according to the city’s Urban Forest Action Plan.

As climate change pushes temperatures higher, Tony Gliot, the director of the city’s urban forestry division, said this issue is becoming increasingly urgent.

“The neighborhoods with less canopy are going to be impacted more by rising temperatures and more severe weather,” he said. “They're going to be harsher — they already are harsher places to live.”

Salt Lake City is already working to ease urban forest inequities, including an initiative to plant at least 1,000 trees on the west side each year. City officials are also working on the Urban Forest Action Plan, which will outline ways to equitably enhance and expand the city’s treescape and ecosystem.

“There's an adage in forestry circles that the best time to plant a tree was 30 years ago,” said Gliot. “The next best day is today.”

As the city plants more trees, residents won’t feel the most significant effects for years. The benefit of each new tree, Gliot said, will grow exponentially over time.

Leah is the Morning Edition associate producer at KUER.
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