Leading urban design expert says tree canopy “makes all the difference” for fighting climate change

America’s cities have many tools for combating climate change and reducing the heat island effect – but leading urban designer and author Peter Calthorpe told the PBS NewsHour that nothing comes close to cooling effect of well-maintained street trees.

“You can do white roofs and green roofs, but believe me, it’s that street canopy that makes all the difference,” Calthorpe (right) said, in a wide-ranging interview on cities, conducted during the Aspen Environment Forum.

Speaking more broadly about trends in urban design, Calthorpe said that we are “returning to some timeless qualities,” with demographic and cultural shifts causing Americans to take another look at more urban lifestyle.

Policies over the last several decades helped build the middle class, but also fueled dependence on the automobile and increased suburban sprawl, Calthorpe says, and some of those trends have begun to reverse as a result of the housing bubble bursting.

“It’s not that everybody is going to move back to the city. That’s a little bit of a misnomer that people get very excited about,” he said, adding: “We need to rethink how we build our cities, so it can’t be this ‘one-size-fits-all’ paradigm that we’ve had for so long.”

Calthorpe cites Sacramento as a city that is moving in the right direction, pointing in part to a tree canopy that reduces temperature in forested areas by as much as 10 degrees, a point few who have spent time in Sacramento would dispute.

Regardless of the local context, citizens and policymakers trying to bring people back into cities are encouraged to make urban forestry central to their cause.

“You can’t have a great street without street trees,” Calthorpe concluded.

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