Somewhere around a decade ago, the city started a tree nursery up at High Hill Reservoir, on city-owned land in the northern part of Dartmouth.
The goal was to save money on the cost of tree plantings — New Bedford had begun a citywide sustainability program called NB Resilient around the same time, and rebuilding the community’s long-neglected tree canopy was one of its many goals.
Tree canopies, as New Bedford Light reporter Colin Hogan demonstrated last week, have significant benefits in reducing the temperatures of dangerous urban heat islands, particularly in low-income urban neighborhoods where the percentage of impervious land (asphalt and concrete) is high.
Urban trees also have an important role to play in reducing air pollutants and reducing rain runoff, which are also significant problems on city streets where the asthma rates are high, and sewage runoff into the harbor is an expensive and ongoing problem.
New Bedford’s tree nursery, alas, did not survive. It evidently suffered from a lack of understanding of how to run such an operation — like growing the young trees in the ground, not in pots; poor oversight by an overworked and undersized DPI staff; and even challenges getting water to the saplings as the H2O pressure around the reservoir, located on high ground, was ironically low.
The demise of the city nursery notwithstanding, the Mitchell administration has certainly made a greater effort at tree planting than anyone else in power in New Bedford in recent decades. The mayor’s press office finally supplied numbers this week showing that the city had planted just short of 4,000 trees since 2014 when Mitchell began a five-year goal of planting 500 trees a year.
The city’s effort was supplemented by several grant programs. One in the near North End was particularly successful with 345 trees being planted as the result of several programs in 2019. But the Mitchell administration did not target the low-income, densely developed neighborhoods where the heat island problem is most worrisome. Instead, the city planted on main thoroughfares throughout New Bedford to head off any criticism that one neighborhood was being favored over the other.
So with the exception of the side streets in the near North End, the secondary triple-decker streets in neighborhoods like Ruth Street in the South End and Weld Square in the West End largely went without plantings.
Another glaring exception is commercial streets such as Acushnet Avenue. The city has, in fact, removed trees or not planted them at all if a merchant objects to a tree in front of their establishment, such as if it is blocking a sign. Those policies clearly work against the effort to build canopies.
The city promised a detailed map or data sheet of where the trees are located but later said it could not supply it due to logistical problems putting the information together.
The city’s own tree plantings, however, dropped off precipitously after the start of the pandemic, and to be honest, for an old, densely packed Eastern city like New Bedford, it’s going to take far more than 4,000 trees over eight years to make a dent in cooling the hard-surface neighborhoods.
What is increasingly clear is that New Bedford, and cities in general, can no longer just slough off the fact that it’s hotter in urban neighborhoods than it is in suburban ones, or in the leafier, more middle-class parts of the city. With climate change demonstrably increasing the number of 90 degree temperature days in New England each decade, and low-income and minority residents no longer willing to accept the “environmental injustice” of living in the neighborhoods most adversely affected by a warming planet, city leaders — from the director of environmental stewardship to the mayor — acknowledge that it’s time for a greater focus on the heat island problem.
Tree canopies take 30 or more years to grow. So tree plantings will not be the only solution, and certainly not the near-term one, to the problem of the large number of people living in sweltering tenements during hotter and hotter summers.
Similar to what is going on in a Boston University program in East Boston, now is the time for New Bedford to begin collecting data on where the urban heat problem is worst — measuring both internal and external temperatures in the most impacted neighborhoods.
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It’s easy to propose solutions like opening “cooling centers,” but as Mayor Mitchell points out, it’s not the easiest thing to get folks to actually leave their homes and go to one. His Honor talks about the air-conditioned five libraries and the two senior centers being open. But let’s be serious, no elderly or health-challenged person is sleeping in a library or a senior center over a hot July night.
There’s some exciting research being done by groups like BU and Groundworks Southcoast. There’s talk about programs that would offer folks rebates for air conditioners or improving home insulation. The overall solution, of course, is getting control of climate change at an international level, but there is little evidence that is going to happen fast. Some scientists say it is already too late to stop the trend, so the time for the city to start preparing a plan for these dense, hotter-and-hotter neighborhoods is now.
Joe Thomas and Jay Avila over at Spinner Publications have sent me some photos of what the tree canopy on some of New Bedford’s main thoroughfares looked like in the late 19th century. Before Dutch Elm Disease wiped them out, the city streets were home to giant Elm trees that at the height of summer look like they kept County Street in perpetual shade.
Of course most of the city was certainly not shaded that way in those days, but the wealthier sections of County and probably Hawthorn were.
It makes you wonder where along the line we lost the knowledge of how to control our natural environment with natural solutions.
Sometimes it just takes fresh eyes to point out what’s obviously been a problem for a long time.
Anyone who has ever paid attention to a New England weather report in the summertime knows that it’s always reported to be significantly hotter in the cities than it is in the suburbs and the countryside.
What hasn’t been as clear is the heavier health burden that low-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color carry from that environmental phenomenon, which with these ongoing changes in the climate grow worse every year.
We know now that we have a problem in these streets and multi-family dwellings of New Bedford that is only going to grow worse. Now is the time to study it and come up with solutions.
Email Jack Spillane at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor's note: This column was updated on Aug. 4, 2022, to further explain where the city has planted trees and where it has not.