Tackling climate change one tree at a time

Heights Tree People voluteers planting trees with students from Caledonia Elementary School on Arbor Day.

Last summer, Susan Miller, a longtime Cleveland Heights resident and environment advocate, gave the Cleveland Heights Green Team (CHGT) an infrared thermometer.

“She asked us to measure the mid-day temperature at some of the city’s heat islands, such as Severance, and neighborhoods north of Mayfield Road, and compare them to temperatures in parks and neighborhoods with significant tree coverage,” recalled Catalina Wagers, CHGT's co-founder. “She wanted us to see both the inequality and the need for better tree canopy distribution across the city."

A study published by the research institution Resources for the Future indicates that highly developed urban areas can experience mid-afternoon temperatures 15–20 degrees Fahrenheit higher than surrounding vegetated areas.

The Cleveland Neighborhood Progress Resiliency Plan reports that climate change in our region will manifest as an increased number of heat waves, floods, and storms of greater frequency and intensity.

“Addressing climate challenges will require significant infrastructure upgrades, which will take time and money," said Miller. “However, there are things we can do now by building on what we already have: trees, green spaces, and gardens."

The 2019 Cuyahoga County Urban Tree Canopy Assessment found that 53 of the 59 communities in the county showed a decline in tree canopy from 2011 to 2017, with nine losing more than 10% of their canopy. These include Cleveland Heights (-13%) and University Heights (-11%). Factors such as disease, clear cutting, and weather events have played a role in this trend, as have general misconceptions about the value and benefits of trees, which leads to fewer new and replacement trees being planted.

Laura Marks, founder of Heights Tree People—a nonprofit group that has planted more than 1,000 trees in residential front lawns across Cleveland Heights and University Heights, at no cost to residents—noted, "Trees play a critical role in creating healthier, safer, and more connected communities. They clean our air, filter our water, lower our electrical bills, and increase property values.”

Studies by the USDA Forest Service have found that trees properly placed around homes and buildings can reduce air-conditioning needs by 30% and save 20–50% in energy used for heating, and that healthy, mature trees can add an average of 10% to a property’s value.

“Another important benefit of an expansive tree canopy is slowing down storm surge and flooding in our cities,” said Miller. “Torrential rains overwhelm our aging infrastructure, and the excess runoff will find its way into our streams and rivers, polluting Lake Erie, our most valuable natural resource.”

The fall tree planting season starts in September. To request a free tree, reach out to the CH Forestry Department (tree-lawn trees) or Heights Tree People (front-yard trees). The Nature Center at Shaker Lakes can provide information about tree care and the benefits of native trees. For links and additional information, visit www.chgreenteam.org.

Natalie Elwell

Natalie Elwell is director of gender equity practice at World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C. She is co-founder of the Cleveland Heights Green Team. She works remotely, and dedicates her free time to advocate for environmental protection and activism.

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Volume 16, Issue 9, Posted 10:13 PM, 08.28.2023