Keeping cool: The need to adapt to a new climate reality on Canada’s West Coast

A tree-lined street in East Vancouver in comparison to a street with very little tree cover just three blocks away.
Click to play video: 'The growing need to keep cities cool' The growing need to keep cities cool
WATCH: Summers are getting hotter on the West Coast, and that means cities need to better plan for extreme heat. – Aug 9, 2022

Like many people on Canada’s “wet” coast, Vancouverite Don Morrison has been noticing how fast the weather is changing across British Columbia. Summers that used to be relatively mild here are now punctuated by intense bouts of heat and humidity.

But Morrison is in a unique place to do something about that heat — through trees. He’s an urban forestry manager with the City of Vancouver, a job that involves planting as many trees across the city as possible. And not just any trees. Increasingly, it’s about species that will offer big, wide canopies, and are resistant to climate change.

Trees, he says, “are one of the most unspoken, unsung heroes within the city.” On days when summer temperatures soar, “you can really notice […] the difference between a street that actually has shade with mature trees as opposed to one that does not.”

The climate emergency is pushing summertime temperatures up on the South Coast of BC. It’s projected the number of summer days — those above 25 C — will soar from about 22 now, to 50 hot days per year by 2050.

With that, there’s a growing realization among planners, policymakers and ordinary residents that life — and lifestyles — along the West Coast are changing. Gone are the days when few in this part of Canada ever paid attention to air conditioning, or when heat stroke was something that people ‘elsewhere’ had to worry about.

And while many on the West Coast still rejoice whenever the forecast calls for heat, there’s also a growing realization here, as in the United Kingdom recently, that summers with such intense heat aren’t always such a positive thing.

Read more: Heat warnings continue across Canada amid scorching temperatures, humidity

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In his line of work as an urban arborist, Morrison says there’s growing awareness that trees are a critical part of heat mitigation — and just as important as other forms of infrastructure such as roads, bridges and utility poles.

Like most cities in Canada, Vancouver is trying to increase the amount of tree coverage. It’s about 23 per cent right now city-wide. Vancouver, in line with other cities in the Pacific Northwest, wants to get it to 30 per cent, Morrison says.

It’s not easy considering that trees take time to grow and that they require a lot of land to do that. In a city like Vancouver, where “every square foot of dirt” is extremely valuable, Morrison says trees have to compete for the same land as buildings and new developments.

But, as temperatures rise, people across British Columbia are starting to realize that strategies for heat mitigation are largely non-existent — and that’s no longer acceptable.

Enter, trees.

Planting them doesn’t come cheap; replacing a mature tree can cost the city as much as $20,000.

But Morrison, along with two urban planning experts Global News spoke with, says the return on investment just in terms of cooling, to say nothing of trees’ ability to retain water, or to bring communities together, is huge.

“We don’t plan for heat,” says Andréanne Doyon, an assistant professor in the School of Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University.

That’s becoming increasingly, and painfully, apparent for people who live along Canada’s West Coast. Heat mitigation strategies are largely non-existent here — and that’s no longer ‘cool.’

Rethinking urban planning

Brent Toderian has been working in the field of urban planning and design for over three decades, including serving as Vancouver’s chief planner from 2006 to 2012. Building cities that are resilient to climate change has become an urgent necessity in the face of extreme weather —  but many planners, he says, are still stuck in ways of the past.

“City planning, and I say this as a condemnation of my own profession, should have been planning for [climate change] before it started to happen,” Toderian told Global News. “The planning profession shouldn’t have to wait for things to be obvious. That’s the opposite of planning, that’s reacting.”

Nowhere is the painful reality of scrambling to catch up more apparent than when it comes to heat mitigation and adaptation.

Read more: As heat waves get hotter, experts warn against becoming ‘air conditioned society’

Toderian says North American cities have long been built to maximize sunlight cast on the street. In short, the view has been that sun is good, shade is bad. “We will prevent buildings from going in that will cast shadow on streets,” he says. But as cities like Vancouver heat up, the strategy should be to incorporate shade into urban planning designs.

“There are other parts of the world that specifically plan to shade streets, and they are increasingly correct.”

In Australia, sidewalks, playgrounds and public squares are regularly covered by awnings, overhangs or other forms of cover to protect them from the intense heat of the sun.

Design infrastructure to cool cities down are the norm in Australia, including at playgrounds. Credit: Richard Blanchard

“It’s normal, and it’s an obvious part of design,” says Toderian, likening the way places like Melbourne or Sydney plan for heat to the ways places like Vancouver plan for rain.

In North America, most cities are covered by large expanses of uncovered asphalt, and that includes wide, open-air parking lots. That asphalt absorbs the sun, heating up the surrounding area, causing what’s known as the urban heat island effect.

Trees offer one solution. But Doyon says there are plenty of other ways to address heat, including laws that require surfaces like roofs to be painted white to reflect the sun, as opposed to black which absorbs it.

As for trees, Toderian says cities often cite lack of money as a reason why they don’t plant more of them. “We’re treating [trees] like, ‘Boy, that would be nice to have if we had money left over from all of our other priorities.’”
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Click to play video: 'Former chief city planner says cities need to be much more proactive to beat the heat' Former chief city planner says cities need to be much more proactive to beat the heat
Former chief city planner says cities need to be much more proactive to beat the heat – Aug 9, 2022

But, he insists, both money and land can be made available — if cities start to see trees as equally as important as other forms of infrastructure, such as sewers and storm drains.

That transition hasn’t happened to the degree it must, he says. “We’re just really starting to be painfully aware of the implications of urban heat events.”

Heat inequality

Dozens of tents and other makeshift living quarters line both sides of Hastings Street along Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Often referred to pejoratively as “Canada’s poorest postal code,” this vibrant neighbourhood is conspicuously bereft of the big, leafy trees that cover the affluent parts of the city.

On days when the temperature feels like it’s in the mid-30s, or worse, it can get dangerously hot — and fast — in the tents or aging, single-room occupancy homes that dot the area.

Excess heat, like most climate impacts, comes with income inequality. While most homes in B.C. still do not have built-in air conditioning, purchasing a portable unit is downright impossible when you’re barely able to make ends meet for food or essentials, to say nothing of rent.

“We do have to be aware that some of the most affected [communities] are not the ones that we’re always connected with,” says public health researcher Christopher Carlsten, referring to people who struggle with mental health challenges, and who are among the most vulnerable groups when temperatures soar.

Read more: Summer arrives in Canada, and so does extreme heat. How to stay safe

When day-to-day survival is someone’s primary concern, he says, “issues of heat, and finding a cold space or a cooler space to get through a heat wave, they might not be front-of-mind.”

Those inequities are captured in something as simple as tree cover.

It’s well-documented that areas of cities that are less tree-covered — and hotter — tend to be less affluent. Conversely, wealthier areas are far more likely to be leafy, and as a result, cool and breezy during the hottest months of the summer.

In the U.S. a program called Tree Equity Score calculates how ‘equal’ a community is based on the number of trees.  It shows that, on average, the lowest-income neighbourhoods have 41 per cent less tree cover than the richest.

In Vancouver, the differences are equally glaring. Parts of East Vancouver, which have traditionally been less affluent, can easily be 4-5 degrees hotter than the more tree-covered West Side neighbourhoods (though affluence is relative in a city where the average home price anywhere is well over a million dollars).

Heat Inequity: Map showing the difference in temperature on a hot day between Vancouver’s most tree-covered areas, and those areas that have less tree cover. Lower-income areas tend to be more exposed to the elements. Caroline Nesbitt / Global News

The city is actively trying to address that imbalance.

Don Morrison says the big challenge there is not that the city doesn’t want to correct the inequities, but that geographic realities work against planting bigger, more mature, leafy trees.

Parts of the city that are relatively tree-poor tend to have lots that are smaller, and more concrete-covered, which means less access to soil, which large, mature trees depend on to grow.

“It’s really challenging [to plant more trees] in a small lot size,” he says. “You want to try and do more with less.”
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But progress, he insists, is happening, one tree at a time. The city has been removing stumps from the Downtown Eastside, with an eye on planting more trees in the neighbourhood.

The reality of adapting to heat events, says Toderian, is starting to show up on planners’ radar screens, albeit slowly.  From Ottawa to Guelph to Victoria, more and more cities are making trees a bigger priority.

He hopes what’s been, to date, a slow uptick will change — and fast — as the heat becomes more and more a part of the new reality.

“You can’t have a 20- or 30-year plan anymore.”