Magazine article American Forests

Keep Austin Green: For Decades, Austin and Its Residents Have Worked to Protect and Grow One of the City's Most Cost-Effective Ways to Reduce City Temperatures: Trees

Magazine article American Forests

Keep Austin Green: For Decades, Austin and Its Residents Have Worked to Protect and Grow One of the City's Most Cost-Effective Ways to Reduce City Temperatures: Trees

Article excerpt


The state's capital, Austin, experienced 90 days at temperatures higher than 100 degrees Fahrenheit in 2011, and each summer, the city basks in sunlight 75 percent of the time. With city buildings and paved streets reflecting back this sunshine and heat, temperatures can be two to nine degrees hotter in Austin than in the surrounding countryside - a phenomenon known as an urban heat island. In 2001, Austin's city council recognized this problem and passed a resolution implementing a Heat Island Containment Policy, which created new initiatives for combating extra heat in the city. Many of these initiatives revolved around trees, some of nature's best temperature regulators.


She may have only served one two-year term on the Austin City Council, but Margret Hofmann's influence on Austin has been felt long after her elected post in the 1970s. Hofmann, a German Jewish immigrant who survived the horrors of World War II, was a devoted grassroots peace advocate and also a staunch supporter of Austin's historic trees. Her commitment to preserving Austin's natural treasures not only earned her the nickname of "Tree Lady," but also led to the creation of Austin's first tree ordinance in the early 1980s and sowed the seeds for Austin's Heritage Tree Ordinance, which was passed in 2010.

Hofmann's fight for Austin's trees in the 1970s revolved around recognizing trees for their value. Hofmann once told the Austin American-Statesman, "I've always been amazed that we pay so much attention and spend a great deal of money on old houses -- historical buildings, often no more than 100 years old -- whereas we don't consider trees that are 400, 500, 600 years old of the same importance." Hofmann encouraged Austinites to protect and recognize Austin's historic trees and helped create a registry of 200 of the city's oldest, biggest trees. In 1983, her efforts came to full fruition when Austin passed a progressive tree ordinance that would set the basis for protecting the trees for decades to come.

Unlike many other cities around the country Austin's tree ordinances don't just protect the public trees, but they also protect trees on private property -- most city tree ordinances only cover trees on city land. Austin's ordinances outline a classification system for trees based on size and species, and generally, the larger a tree is, the more protection it is given. And, based on the economic and practical functions these trees provide to the city; the protection is warranted.


A 2006 tree canopy analysis conducted by the city's Watershed Protection Department revealed that approximately 32 percent of the city is shaded by trees. According to Leah Haynie, Austin's Heat Island Program coordinator, trees can reduce summer temperatures through shading, by absorbing solar energy and through evapotranspiration. In addition, it's estimated that Austin's trees have the potential to store up to 100,000 tons of [CO.sub.2] per year, which is why departments across Austin are focused on increasing and protecting the city's urban forest.

"Trees are working for us. They are the hardest working and most efficient of all city workers," says Michael Embesi, a City of Austin arborist. "They continually provide benefits with little to no investment. Trees don't take time off for vacation, sick leave or require medical coverage."

"Here in Texas, we value our trees immensely for their cooling effects," adds Ray Henning, line clearance superintendent for Austin Energy, which serves 420,000 customers in the Greater Austin area.

Therefore, when Austin's city council passed its Urban Heat Island Containment Policy in 2001, a program called Neighbor Woods was a key part of its plans. Each year, this program, Which began in Austin's Parks and Recreation Department and is now administered via contract through the nonprofit TreeFolks, distributes between 3,000 and 4,000 trees to Austin Energy customers for planting near city streets in the right of way. …

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