New York City, NY

Urban Heat Island: We Need Trees to Keep Cool in NYC, so Why Are We Tearing Them Down?

trees and dumpsters in Prospect ParkMelissa Toldy

How do you stay cool in the summertime in New York City? Do you head to the beach? Crank up the A/C? Perhaps you find sweet relief in a nearby park, under your favorite tree?

A few weeks ago, I took a short trip outside of NYC to visit a friend’s new home across the Hudson River. Six of us gathered on that hot summer day. We spent the afternoon in the backyard, under a large patio umbrella. Although we were protected from a sunburn, the synthetic material of the umbrella left us feeling sticky and sweaty.

At one point, our hosts recommended that we move the lawn chairs to the side of the house where the temperature was remarkably cooler. Several large trees lined the perimeter of the lawn, offering natural shade. Why were the trees more adept at cooling the air than the large man-made umbrella?
tree leavesMelissa Toldy

A tree’s canopy helps disperse the sunlight, but unlike a synthetic umbrella, the cooling effect is more advanced. When it rains, the trees absorb the water into their roots. Then, the liquid travels up to their leaves. Eventually, this water is released as vapor which cools the surrounding air. This natural process is known as transpiration.

With the current heatwave, New Yorkers are thinking about how to stay cool. The Central Park Conservancy published a recent article that emphasizes the importance of trees in combating extreme temperatures. During higher temperatures in the city, there’s an effect called “urban heat island” that exacerbates the heatwave. The so-called concrete jungle is a perfect place to trap heat, slowly releasing it throughout the day.

When the island of Manhattan faces an extreme “urban heat island” effect, Central Park’s 18,000 trees and 843 acres of paths, lawns, and woodlands offer a much-needed reprieve when New Yorkers need it most.

New Yorkers fortunate to live near extensive greenspaces, such as Central Park or Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, benefit from the natural cooling effect of the trees. Some of us have been fighting to preserve these greenspaces, such as the recent protest at Battery Park City's Rockefeller Park.

Currently, there is a plan to remove 1,000 trees from East River Park as part of a flood barrier project that involves burying the area under 10 feet of landfill. Activists are calling the plan an “environmental injustice.”
Park Slope streetMelissa Toldy

Having lived in tree-deprived Williamsburg and tree-rich Park Slope, I know the difference between walking down the street under a canopy and walking down the street under a harsh beam of sunlight.

Gothamist recently explained how trees act as NYC’s natural air conditioners. Although greenspaces have a profound effect on the city’s ability to keep cool during the summer, the piece points out the need for transforming more urban spaces with greenery in mind.

However, adding new parks is only one option for the city. There are other opportunities for increasing greenery by installing green roofs (starting a garden on a rooftop), adding reflective tape to roofs (a material that can reflect heat back), or changing blacktop to something less absorbent.

Are you happy with the amount of trees in your NYC neighborhood? Did you know that property owners can request a tree to be planted on their street?

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