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How America’s hottest city is trying to cool down

Can trees help save Phoenix from extreme heat?

Joss Fong is a founding member of the Vox video team and a producer focused on science and tech. She holds a master's degree in science, health, and environmental reporting from NYU.

It’s time to stop looking at trees as a form of “beautification.” They are, instead, a living form of infrastructure, providing services that include stormwater management, air filtering, carbon sequestration, and, most importantly for a city like Phoenix, Arizona, they cool the environment around them.

Trees can lower neighborhood temperatures in three ways:

  1. Their shade prevents solar radiation from hitting paved surfaces like concrete and asphalt, which absorb energy and rerelease it into the air as heat.
  2. Their leaves cool the immediate area by using heat to evaporate the water trees pull from the soil during their growth processes.
  3. If you’re standing under one, a tree protects your body directly from the sun’s rays. If you’ve ever been in a dry, hot city like Phoenix in the summer, you’ll know how important shade is for making any outdoor experiences tolerable.

As Phoenix deals with a rising frequency of extreme heat waves — which can be deadly, but also cause worrisome spikes in energy demand — the city is looking to trees as part of its heat mitigation strategy. Phoenix isn’t devoid of trees, but they’re distributed unevenly across the city. A quick glance at a satellite image of the metro area reveals substantial green splotches in the north and east, and brown ones in the south and west, where many lower-income neighborhoods are located.

So Phoenix recently pledged to reach “tree equity” by 2030, under an agreement with American Forests, a national tree organization. I visited Phoenix recently to take a look at the current state of the city’s urban forest. In this video, we use drone imagery and thermal cameras to understand how the urban design of the city contributes to extreme heat, and what it can do to cool down.

You can find this video and all of Vox’s videos on YouTube.

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