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Extreme heat hits Tucson’s poor neighborhoods hardest

Where city efforts fall short, activists try to add shade to the heat-stressed south side.

 

Students, nonprofit and grassroots organizations construct green infrastructure that will direct stormwater to native trees and grasses they are planting to improve the landscape at Star Academic High School.
Norma Jean Gargasz for High Country News

On a cool morning in mid-November, about two dozen volunteers and students work in a shallow basin behind Star Academic High School, a school on Tucson’s south side, shoveling out piles of dirt and placing rocks in front of a drainage designed to capture rainwater from the school’s roof. One teenage girl uses a hammer drill on the hard dirt, creating a hole big enough for a young tree, while other students spread mulch and plug native grasses into the basin.  

The landscaping will beautify the school’s barren lot, but the project’s real goal is to add shade and natural vegetation to one of the hottest parts of this desert city. Trees and plants have a dramatic cooling effect in urban environments, and researchers say they’ll be critical safeguards for the health and well-being of residents as temperatures continue to climb.

University of Arizona students and high school students helped design the school's landscaping with their community in mind.
Norma Jean Gargasz for High Country News
A few years ago, city and county officials mapped tree canopies and shade throughout Tucson. The results showed that in northern and eastern Tucson, where the city’s wealthier residents live, the tree canopy is expansive. But south of 22nd Street, home to many of the city’s low-income and minority residents, shade is scarce to nonexistent. And its absence shows: The south side can be up to 5 degrees hotter than the greener neighborhoods to its north.

This disparity will only worsen as the climate continues to change. The Southwest is projected to warm by as much as 8.6 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. In Tucson, rising temperatures will be further amplified by the urban heat island, a phenomenon linked to rooftops and asphalt roads, which absorb more heat from the sun during the day than natural surfaces and then radiate it at night. The effect is particularly pronounced in the sparsely vegetated parts of the city where people of color and low-income residents live. Those areas are expected to heat up more quickly and be less equipped to buffer the changes with costly amenities like air conditioning. Here, extreme heat could lead to more hospital visits and even deaths.

Planting trees and using captured stormwater to irrigate them could help a lot. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in the hottest part of the day, shaded areas can be 20 to 45 degrees cooler than unshaded spaces. To grow more vegetation, the city of Tucson has created programs to encourage installation of rainwater-harvesting cisterns and stormwater collection basins. But so far, the programs have disproportionately benefited the more affluent areas of the city, where they are least needed.

Over the past decade, Tucson has tried to prepare for a hotter future by promoting green infrastructure and water conservation through water-harvesting policies. The city created financial incentives, such as rebates and grants, to encourage citizens to make improvements in their own neighborhoods or backyards, capturing water or adding vegetation.

Unfortunately, there's a problem, City Councilmember Regina Romero tells me, sitting in her cramped office in the basement of the Center for Biological Diversity, where she works as the Latino engagement director. The way the incentives are structured often makes them inaccessible to the city’s low-income residents. Take the city’s rainwater-harvesting program: In 2012, Tucson started a rebate program that reimbursed residents up to $2,000 for installing cisterns and other systems to collect rainwater on their properties. The hope was that people would use water collected from their roofs, instead of drinking water, to irrigate landscaping.

Communities with less resources, like this south side neighborhood, are less likely to apply to grants for projects like curbside irrigation.
Norma Jean Gargasz for High Country News

But few people in poor neighborhoods took advantage of the program. “(Rainwater barrels) were kind of becoming this middle-class symbol of wealth,” said Andrea Gerlak, a water policy scholar with the University of Arizona. Most of the rebates went to northern Tucson, where the shade canopy was already densest. Low-income residents couldn’t afford the upfront costs of installation, and in many cases, they were unaware the program even existed, Romero says. In the initial rollout phase, none of the promotional materials or workshops were available in Spanish.

Since then, the city has directed funding to a local nonprofit called the Sonora Environmental Research Institute, which is distributing systems to low-income and Spanish-speaking residents with zero-interest loans and grants. Over 100 harvesting systems — about 6 percent of the systems funded by the city's incentive program — have now been installed in low-income households.

Similar access problems have arisen with a new neighborhood program, which distributes up to $45,000 a year to each of Tucson’s six wards for small stormwater harvesting projects — things like water collection basins and curb cuts, which funnel water from the street into landscaped medians or parks. Romero proposed the program to add vegetation to more heat-stressed parts of the city. But the City Council ultimately decided that any funding opportunity had to be equally available to every part of the city. “Well, we all know that equal does not mean equitable,” Romero says. Out of the 20 applications received in the first year of the program, 18 were in two of the city’s more affluent wards.  

It wasn’t that these projects weren’t of interest to people living in poorer neighborhoods. It was that the process of qualifying for the funding — developing a project plan and filling out an extensive application — was harder for communities with less resources.  In some of the areas Romero represents, “people work and have two to three jobs,” she explained, leaving them less time to participate in civic life. Additionally, there are few neighborhood associations on the south side. That's another barrier, because most of the city's outreach about funding opportunities is funneled through these groups.

“We have to make sure we are responding to that inequity,” Romero says, “and that we are spending those funds in an equitable manner.”

Claudio Rodriguez, a community organizer with Tierra y Libertad, works with other volunteers to plant trees at Star Academic High School.
Norma Jean Gargasz for High Country News

Dressed in a school-bus-yellow T-shirt, Claudio Rodriguez watches as his partner, Nelda Ruiz, and other community members mulch and plant trees in another stormwater basin in front of Star Academic High School. “They look like little work ants,” he says, looking on from the building’s shadow at 2 p.m.

Rodriguez is an organizer with Tierra y Libertad, a grassroots environmental justice organization that works on the south side. Though it’s been hard to take advantage of the city’s climate adaptation programs in the barrio, Rodriguez and a few partners are finding other ways to get the work done.

The stormwater basin at Star High School, for example, came about through a project called Tucson Verde Para Todos, spearheaded by Gerlak and her research partner at the University of Arizona. The group won a grant from the university and partnered with Tierra y Libertad and other local nonprofits including the Watershed Management Group, who designed the basin, to create the project. They secured donated trees and asked university and high school students to help plan the landscaping, and the coalition gathered community input. One result of that input was the creation of a shaded bus stop in front of the school; until recently, a single metal sign marked the stop in a city that regularly tops 100 degrees in the summer.

[RELATED:https://www.hcn.org/articles/climate-desk-extreme-heat-is-killing-people-who-lack-shelter]

But even when these partnerships work, Tucson and other cities can’t afford to rely on them to promote climate resiliency. As Diego Martinez-Lugo, another organizer, explains, “It is kind of like a double-edged sword.” For the city, projects like this are a win-win, he says: “They don’t have to fund it, and the community is doing it anyways.” Ultimately, this approach ends up putting a lot of responsibility on individuals to fight for projects in communities whose residents are already overworked.

As climate change intensifies, governments at every level will need to re-evaluate who is really benefiting from their programs. Federal tax credits for solar panels, for instance, don’t really help low-income communities. The tax breaks make adaptation easier for people who already have the means to protect themselves, says Diana Liverman, a researcher who studies the societal impacts of climate change. “But if you aren’t earning enough to pay taxes, you aren’t getting the tax break.”

At the grassroots level, community organizers and other groups will continue to fill the gaps and promote community resiliency in any way they can. “Because at the end of the day, everyone will be affected by climate change,” Rodriguez said. “But it will hit our low-income and people of color first.”

12th-grader, Karla Garcia digs holes for trees with assistance from Betsy Wilkening of Arizona Project Wet.
Norma Jean Gargasz for High Country News

Jessica Kutz is an editorial fellow for High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.