Let me open with a question. Do we want vibrant street life and festivals, hallmarks of healthy cities, to survive as global warming turns urban heat islands into frying pans? Who will saunter down streets radiating oppressive heat?
Very few, but we can alter this increasingly inevitable outcome. We can draw down carbon to blunt temperature increases while simultaneously making cities heat resistant. One step toward heat resistance is to tear out asphalt parking lots, since they will exceed 160°F on 100 degree days, and replace them with parking forests. Not exactly paradise, but with parking-forest temperatures in the 90s, it will be the next best thing.
How to do it? Copy and expand the design principles used in Uptown Circle, Normal, Ill. Normal fought U.S. Department of Transportation tooth and nail to construct a tree-circled, grass-covered rotary equipped with a delightful water feature. Water also irrigates the trees thus protecting them from the growing threat of extreme, extended, rainless, tree-killing heat. And it’s not city water. It is drawn from a storm-water-filled, 75,000-gallon cistern that runs underneath two street spokes in the rotary.
To create what could be called the “Jessie Fell’s Parking Forest,” Normal would extend Uptown Circle into the triangular wedge of asphalt parking, pictured below, north to College Avenue. It will take 20 years for trees to grow into the job; but that is when we will really need them. As the Chinese proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is now.” And now it must be; 20 years from now will be too late. Too late to save the Sugar Creek Art Festival from cancelation due to withering street heat. Too late to save the Corn Festival. Too late for just about any July-August street event. However, with Fell’s Forest in place, summer street events can be moved under the shade of trees.
Normal, Peoria, want to save city center streets for summer use? Forest parking lots, please.
What will it cost? An arm and a leg, but do not worry. Mother Nature banked millions to pay for these projects with the tons of carbon presently stored in city trees. That carbon is worth money. We monetize the carbon with the help of City Forest Credits. They have already done so for Seattle, Des Moines and other cities. Their certified Carbon+ Credits are sold as carbon offsets to any business, institution or household that wants to neutralize, in part or whole, its carbon footprint. In short, we draw down a century’s worth of carbon savings in our old trees to plant young trees in permeable parking lots with silva cells for non-compacted soil and with cisterns for irrigation water.
What will happen if cities persist with a know-nothing / do-nothing dodge? Summer city street life, as we know it, will fade away. It will, in Lorraine Hansberry’s words, dry up like a Raisin in the Sun.
Another issue, another setting, another bitter harvest.
William Rau is Illinois State University emeritus professor of sociology.