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It’s Really Hot Out Here, So Let’s Go Plant Some Trees

Mayor Erin Mendenhall planting a tree in 2021 as part of her 1,000 Trees Initiative.

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After the intense heat experienced by many of us this summer you probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this past July was Salt Lake City’s warmest one yet and the heat wave is continuing with us as September begins.

But did you know that Salt Lake County’s summer days are abnormally hotter than those in nearby rural areas? Our culprit is referred to as the urban heat island. 

What is the Urban Heat Island? 

Urban heat islands occur as the built environment of a city attracts heat and prevents it from being released by covering up naturally absorbing sources. For example, grass absorbs heat but covering it with concrete for a sidewalk that attracts warmth will make the city hotter. Researchers have found that the cumulative effect of all these heat-attracting sources results in cities being up to 17 degrees hotter than surrounding areas! Research conducted by the University of Utah used temperature monitors throughout the valley to measure our urban heat index. This research discovered that our parks with grass and shade are two degrees cooler than nearby residential neighborhoods.  

The benefits that shady parks and park strips provide in reducing the urban heat island are just one of the reasons that Salt Lake City places an emphasis on maintaining them. The important role tree cover plays in reducing heat is evident when looking at the images of Salt Lake City below. The map on the left shows the Urban Heat Island Effect by noting how much hotter it can be in that area. The darker the red the hotter it is. The map on the right shows the percentage of tree cover canopy in the entire neighborhood. The darker the green, the more canopy cover in the neighborhood. When comparing the two images it becomes evident that when there are more trees, the urban heat index is lower.  

Additionally, the image below provides another useful visual to understand what the Urban Heat Island Effect looks like in Salt Lake City. The image, taken from satellite by NASA, shows 300 West to the Wasatch Foothills. The image, taken on a hot summer day, demonstrates the Urban Heat Island Effect in action. Orange, red, and yellow indicate hot areas and blue and green illustrate the cool areas. With this in mind, it becomes clear that areas with less vegetation are the hottest. For example, Liberty Park, which is near the bottom left-hand corner, is very blue on the map indicating that it’s cool. 

How can you reduce heat and contribution to the urban heat island? 

With the hot temperatures outside, it can be tempting to increase the AC inside your home. However, this increases energy consumption and the ambient heat entering your neighborhood. Here are a few easy ideas to save you a little money and lower energy consumption! 

  1. Close your curtains or blinds to keep your energy consumption low. While having the windows open can be beautiful it invites solar heat into your home, ultimately making it hotter. Especially if you’re gone for the day, consider closing your shades and turning down your air conditioner.! When you return, you’ll have saved a little energy and your house will still be cool! 
  1. Plant water-wise vegetation. Placing water-wise vegetation around your home will lower the surface and air temperature in your yard by absorbing heat. Check out this SLCgreen resource for some tips on xeriscaping and native water-wise plants. If you’re a business owner, you can make an even bigger impact by doing the same for that property as well! Additionally, you may qualify for cash rewards or rebates to transition your front yard and/or park strip to water-wise plants.   
  1. Plant trees around your yard. Trees are a great tool for reducing urban heat because their canopy provides shade and absorbs sunlight! Additionally, planting trees can increase your property value and provide more beauty to your community. The shade for your grass even means it requires less water to keep it green!  If you do plant trees this guide from Public Lands can help you properly care and water your trees. And if you are in Salt Lake City and don’t have a tree in your park strip, contact our Urban Forestry Division to request one and they will come plant one for you! 
  1. Invest in solutions to make your appliances more energy efficient. One of the easiest ways to decrease your energy consumption is to increase the efficiency of the energy that you do use. As a renter, an easy way to do this is purchasing ENERGYSTAR products. Next time you’re purchasing new lights, an air conditioner, or even a fan, look for the ENERGYSTAR logo! This online database makes it easy to find which products are certified. ENERGYSTAR also has a rebate finder to help make the switch more affordable.  
  1. Insulate your home and take other measures to reduce energy use. If you’re a homeowner or developer, make sure you have the appropriate level of insulation in your home. You can also look into installing solar panels on your roof to capture some of that energy! Have a look at rebate programs through Dominion and Rocky Mountain Power to see what you qualify for. If you need additional cooling (or your HVAC system is due for replacement), consider an air-source heat pump!

What is Salt Lake City doing? 

  • In 2017, Salt Lake City implemented the Elevate Buildings program. Elevate Buildings requires all commercial buildings over 25,000 square feet to benchmark and report their energy consumption to the city. Building managers input their energy consumption into ENERGYSTAR’s Portfolio Manager program, which then assigns them a score from 1 to 100. A score over 75 is deemed high-performing and will earn an automatic nomination in the City’s annual awards program. This award recognizes the most energy efficient leaders in the city. 
  • In 2020, Mayor Mendenhall announced an initiative to plant an additional 1,000 trees on the Westside (in addition to the 1,000 that the Urban Forestry Division regularly plants). The goal is to increase the urban forest, provide additional shade, improve air quality,  improve the environmental health of the area, and beautify our neighborhoods.  
  • Part of the benefit of Salt Lake City’s landscaping ordinance, which requires 33% of park strips to have vegetation, is that it helps to alleviate the urban heat island! This can be done using native and water wise plants. Looking to create a more water-wise yard, check out these helpful programs and tips from the city:
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