Story at a glance

  • Los Angeles city officials are treating sunshine as a growing crisis.
  • They have vowed to cover bus stops and plant 90,000 trees to combat a dangerous lack of shade
  • Analysts point out that more trees and shade are available in wealthier neighborhoods, leaving low-income residents to suffer through rising temperatures.
  • This disparity highlights the socioeconomic bias in Los Angeles's city planning that officials hope to correct.

Sun-seekers and warm-weather enthusiasts have long flocked to California as a postcard destination with an ideal climate. But in recent years, intense heat and lack of shade have become a nuisance and — more disturbingly — a public health crisis centered around class. 

An article written by Sam Bloch in The Places Journal, cited by the New York Timesdescribes shade being regarded as “a luxury amenity,” when in reality it is a ”civic resource” used to combat increasing temperatures. 

Just two weeks ago, a heat wave in Los Angeles broke records for the month of November, reaching temperatures in the mid-90s. For pedestrians commuting via public transportation and residents in low-income areas, trees are noticeably absent. The New York Times chalks it up to “abusive policing” fueled by concerns that trees were a good place to hide illicit substances and firearms. In 2018, LA Mag similarly reported that wealthier neighborhoods could afford the upkeep to plant and maintain trees, whereas lower-income communities opt for air conditioning instead. 

As one researcher allegedly put it: “Trees grow on money.” Comfort factor aside, multiple studies have documented the mental and physical health benefits of urban forestry.

In response to a burgeoning public health crisis, the Los Angeles government has authorized its first forestry officer, Rachel Malarich, who will helm the initiative to plant 90,000 shade trees in the most vulnerable spots in Los Angeles by 2021. These include bus stops and other public transport routes that expose commuters to intense UV rays. 

One notable cost could be California’s iconic palm trees, which serve primarily as aesthetic horticulture rather than shady canopies. Malarich said there may be less palm trees planted in the future, but acknowledges the cultural significance. Still, the goal is clear: to deploy shadier trees in all Los Angeles neighborhoods, regardless of socioeconomic status. Malarich emphasizes that “All our communities should have access to those benefits.”

Published on Dec 02, 2019