Wildlife & Nature

Shady Projects Look to Lower the Temperature

Two grants will help Cumberland plant hundreds of trees in town more equitably


A lack of tree cover on Winter Street in Cumberland, R.I. (Colleen Cronin/ecoRI News photos)

CUMBERLAND, R.I. — Across the street from the Monastery, at Narragansett Avenue, a dead end, tree-shielded street, the temperature on a late June afternoon reads 83 degrees. Travel south onto Broad Street, about a 6-minute drive toward Town Hall, the sun shines often uninhibited onto cement and asphalt, and the temperature creeps up to almost 90.

Within the same town, only 3 miles apart, like many other resources, shade is not divided equally. But the town of Cumberland is aiming to change that.

To make tree cover more equitable, Cumberland applied for and received two grants, one from the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank and another through the U.S. Forest Service, that will allow the town to plant hundreds of trees in those less-shady areas.

Tree canopy covers about 70% of the area around the Monastery but less than 40% of the area around the southern section of Broad Street, according to the Tree Equity Score Analyzer. TESA, created by American Forests and piloted in Rhode Island, compares tree canopy cover and surface temperatures to local demographics to see whether the trees in a community are benefiting residents equitably.

The Monastery and many other areas nearby receive a 100% tree equity score, while the southern parts of Cumberland, such as Valley Falls and Lonsdale, have scores as low as 58%.

“There’s an inordinate amount of asphalt and not a lot of trees” in that area, said Jonathan Stevens, the town’s director of planning and development.

The $250,000 grant from the Infrastructure Bank will allow the town to plant about 200 trees in those neighborhoods along public property, according to Stevens.

The town will also match $20,000 from the grant to hire a tree warden.

“God knows that kind of expertise hanging around Town Hall is good for all sorts of things,” said Stevens, explaining Cumberland is one of the few Rhode Island municipalities that doesn’t yet have someone or some entity in the position.

Stevens said he hopes the trees will be planted in the fall, in October or November.

Some of the trees will be placed around the Rhode Island Department of Transportation’s improvements on Broad Street, which in part aims to make the area more walkable. More than a dozen or so trees will grace the green space between Chambers and John streets, which Stevens said will become a park.

Eddy Sandoval, one of the owners of the vegan coffee shop Apothica, off Broad Street, is excited about the prospect of more trees so that people and potential customers “won’t have to walk under the sun the whole time” they are in the area.

The second grant, from the U.S. Forest Service, will also allow Groundwork Rhode Island, an environmental nonprofit, to plant trees in the Valley Fall/Lonsdale area, but the placement of the trees has yet to be finalized.

Groundwork Rhode Island will plant the trees with its own landscape service but is working with TESA modeling and a team of students from Clark University to find the best places.

Clark University students Nick Geron, left, Luck Fleming, middle, and Danielle Hall record temperatures under the shade of a tree on Broad Street.

The students, who are all a part of Clark’s Human-Environment Regional Observatory (HERO) program, will spend the next few months surveying the area, taking air quality readings, measuring air and surface temperatures, mapping out existing trees, and speaking with residents to see if they might be interested in taking a tree. (The grant allows plantings on both public and private property.)

Madeline Regenye, a graduate student at Clark and one of the project managers, walked the streets around Blackstone Valley Prep High School with a bright-yellow vest, a hat, and lots of sunscreen on a hot afternoon measuring ozone and air particulates.

She waited about 3 minutes in between every reading using a little white machine that sucks in air to take the measurements, toggling between sensors, before she read them off to Nicole Buckley, an undergraduate in the HERO program working on the Cumberland portion of the survey. The U.S. Forest Service grant will also provide trees to parts of Central Falls and Woonsocket.

Buckley said the work is important because it demonstrates how communities like the one she is surveying are “hurt by the faultiness of urban planning.”

As Regenye took readings that often showed higher ozone levels on stretches of the neighborhood with less tree cover, she noted all the spots where trees could be planted and why they might be more effective in certain locations over others.

So far, the team has interviewed a few residents about planting trees on their property, but concerns range from losing parking, aesthetics, care for the trees after they are planted, and the potential that the trees could fall during a storm, Regenye said.

“In an ideal world, I would look at a map and do a bunch of [graphic information system] work, and be like, ‘These are the most optimal places to plant trees,’ and then there would just be available things in those places and willing people who want to put trees in the ground there,” said Nick Geron, a Ph.D. student at Clark in the Geography Department and one of the other HERO project managers.

But it is rarely that simple, which means they need to spend a lot of time talking to the community, he added.

The students have been passing off the names of any potential tree-takers to Groundwork Rhode Island so the Pawtucket-based organization can contact them when planting begins in the fall.

In addition to monitoring air quality and gauging community interest, the group is also taking temperature readings of the area.

“Air temp is a crazy thing to imagine because air is constantly moving around,” said Geron, noting the readings are a combination of the heat from the air and surrounding surfaces.

He said though a town or area’s official temperature reading may say one thing, from block to block, or even every hundred feet, the temperature can vary widely.

The Clark students are looking at three temperature readings: air; surface of impervious surfaces; and in the sun/in the shade.

On that same late June day, Geron and his group of students waited for cars to pass by before dashing out in their yellow vests to measure the road’s surface temperature. They shielded the thermometer from the wind to get an accurate reading.

From one side of Broad Street, where three stumps sit less than a foot tall, the sun hits directly at the sidewalk and the street. The air temperature measures 93 degrees and the asphalt reaches 124. There’s no shade to get a third reading.

On the opposite side of Broad Street, where a line of mature trees shades the street, the air dips down to about 90 degrees, the road in the sun is 111 degrees, and in the shade, it’s a little less than 85 degrees.

“Something as simple as planting trees can help reduce temperatures … which are just going to get hotter,” Regenye said.

After collecting their data, the HERO students will organize it and pass it off to Groundwork Rhode Island so “they can use that information to target residents but also be able to plant trees in places that will have a large impact,” Geron said.

The students will take measurements after the trees are planted to record the impact.

Groundwork Rhode Island has been building the resources for years to plan and execute a project like the U.S. Forest Service one, according to Amelia Rose, the organization’s executive director.

“Soup to nuts,” there is so much that goes into the tree planting process, from outreach work, to planning, to permitting, she said.

“There’s like one thousand things that have to be done in order to get that tree planted,” Rose said. “And the tree planting itself is like the easiest, simplest, and least time-consuming part of it.”

After the tree goes into the ground, someone needs to take care of it.

But the hard work reaps benefits. In addition to temperature reduction, trees filter air and absorb water to help prevent flooding. And beyond these tangible benefits, planting trees gives communities something else, Rose said.

“I feel like people, when they have trees in their community, they feel like their community is being invested in and that people care,” she said. “It’s sort of like the feeling you are cared for, feeling like your community is a community of choice.”


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  1. So true, Colleen. While north of the Monastery and into Massachusetts has abundant tree growth with many protected areas, such as private property, plus tracts that are part of the Land Trust or state and town parks, Valley Falls has traditionally been overlooked when it comes to trees, whether the streets consist of multi- or single-family homes, or commercial, retail or municipal buildings. About the only place with a good canopy is right along the Blackstone River. We’ve been aware for several months of the grants and getting a tree warden, but hearing about this HERO project puts some on-the-ground reality to it. Thanks for this story.

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