When Caitlin Watters, a third-year law student at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, is not studying for the bar exam or analyzing briefs, you can often find her on the law building’s fifth floor courtyard eating lunch or taking a break.
“People need time outside,” she said. “Being cooped inside for too long gives me anxiety.”
The fifth-floor patio is her “go-to place,” in part because it has just the right balance of shade and sun, she said. Dozens of law students join her outside to read, study, eat and work throughout the day.
The law school’s artificial shade area is one example of changes that have taken place in the last decade to bring more shade to downtown Phoenix.
It’s been a combination of forces. The city has planted hundreds of new trees, including about 150 at Civic Space Park, creating a downtown playground that some hold up as an urban model. When ASU came downtown, landscape architects added as many as 200 trees. Other community facets have also jumped in. Downtown Phoenix Inc. has added 250 trees along downtown streets.
As new ASU buildings develop, architects are inserting shade into their designs. The law school’s urban canyon connects both sides of the Beus Center for Law and Society.
And there are other artificial shade structures downtown, such as the Shadow Play public art piece on Roosevelt Street and the Bloomcanopy shade sculpture by the Phoenix Public Market on East Pierce Street.
“There’s actually quite a bit going on,” said Richard Adkins, Phoenix’s forestry supervisor for the Department of Parks and Recreation.
Still, local experts and downtown residents say more shade coverage is needed, and as downtown living becomes more popular, there are new challenges emerging.
The need for canopy
Downtown Phoenix needs trees to be a viable living environment, said Sean Sweat, president of the Urban Phoenix Project, a downtown advocacy group.
“They keep nature present in our daily lives, they clean the air, they reduce street noise, they provide habitats for birds and small animals, and, most acutely, they give us much needed shade to protect us from the sun,” Sweat said.
It is not just the sun’s rays that citizens need protection from. According to the Scientific American and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, last year was the hottest year in U.S. history, and Phoenix’s summer has several record-breaking hottest days, which adds to need for shaded areas.
According to Ariane Middel, an ASU urban climatologist, shaded areas can make a person feel up to 18 degrees cooler.
But trees do more than provide shade or a cool reprieve on a hot day. According to Project Desert Canopy, they also provide numerous improvements for water collection, air quality, clean energy and social well-being.
The challenges of shading downtown
No one knows the challenges of providing shade in downtown better than Adkins, who has various maps in his office charting the trees around Phoenix and even slivers of aged, ringed trunks in front of and behind his desk. He has documented more than 92,000 city-owned trees in the metropolitan area.
“There’s been a resurgence in what I consider the value of trees and understanding what trees bring to your quality of life in the downtown area,” said Adkins.
He estimates that about 12 percent of the city is shaded, but downtown Phoenix only has about 7 to 8 percent coverage. Still, he points out, that is better than in the past.
“Downtown is tough because you have a very dense urban area. You have a lot of hardscape. You have a lot of concrete. You have a lot of utilities. You have a lot of buildings,” said Adkins.
Another challenge to growing trees is the rising popularity of downtown. In the last 10 years, downtown has drawn new businesses, apartments and condos to the area, but this growth has come at a price – tree loss.
Downtown Phoenix Inc. has seen this loss right outside their window at the Arizona Summit Law School and are working to strengthen and regain Phoenix’s urban forest.
In the last two years, they have planted more than 250 trees downtown. Their most recent planting three weeks ago at the Arizona Summit Law School on North Central Avenue.
Downtown Phoenix Inc. is working closely with the city to increase the walkability of downtown and reduce the urban heat island created by all of the concrete, said Samantha Jackson, senior director of operations.
“We’ve been focused on building the shade canopy downtown for several years,” said Jackson. “We do partner with the City of Phoenix and our shade goal is similar to the city’s.”
Shade has been a hot topic in recent months downtown. In 2010, the Tree and Shade Master Plan in 2010, a proposal that aims to make all of Phoenix, including downtown, a greener and cooler place to live. Not all residents felt the plans have done enough. Recently citizens had created a trees and shade committee, to better address downtown’s needs and establish suggested regulations. This was brought forward to council last week, but the city instead voted to establish their own subcommittee.
For tree people, Civic Space Park is downtown’s crown jewel
Aimee Williamson, executive director of Trees Matter, an environmental education nonprofit headquartered in downtown Phoenix, points to Civic Space Park, which opened in April 2009, as an example of how far downtown has come in providing shade.
“Civic Space Park is still fairly new and all those trees that were planted there are getting really big,” said Williamson.
Adkins said the trees in the park will reach maturity within the next five or six years. At that stage, more than 70 percent of the park’s surface area will be shaded by trees and artificial shade alike, according to the City of Phoenix website.
Williamson said the park’s trees are planted in places people will utilize them, in clusters so that they produce the most shade. The most important feature of the park is its tree choice and placement.
“They chose the right trees for the area,” said Williamson.
Williamson and Adkins follow a motto: right tree, right place. This means specifically choosing and planting certain kinds of trees that are suitable for the environment.
This concept is crucial to growing a successful urban forest in a desert city like Phoenix, said Adkins. He says there is always been a push from the community to plant native trees.
“I understand that, but in some places … they can’t handle mesquites and palo verdes,” said Adkins. “It’s just not appropriate.”
Certain tree species are unsuitable for downtown, Adkins said. For example, though ironwoods have soft, pink blossoms, they also have sharp spines on their branches that could harm pedestrians if they are not well maintained. Similarly, acacias’ creamy yellow flowers have thorns as well as disruptive root systems that could damage sidewalks around it.
The palm trees that line many of downtown’s street are also a debatable species choice. According to the U.S. Forest Service, only one palm species, the California fan palm, is native to Arizona and comprise just part of Phoenix’s palm population. Many non-native species require higher maintenance and more water than other trees.
“In most cases … we should not be replanting our palm trees,” said Williamson. “We should be looking to other trees that provide a lot more shade.”
Civic Space Park has Southern live oaks, Chinese pistache, ornamental pears and cascalotes, and while they are not native, they are able to withstand Phoenix’s arid summer and provide the most amount of shade, Adkins said.
Byron Sampson, ASU’s first landscape architect, is pleased with the trees on the ASU campus across the street. Like all ASU campuses, the downtown campus has its own personality because of the landscaping, with trees that were carefully chosen to provide shade and to be aesthetically beautiful.
“There is a considerable amount of reflected and absorbed heat in the downtown area and the plant material has to be able to withstand that and thrive,” said Sampson.
Benefits beyond greenery
In just under a decade, Civic Space Park has been a gathering place, for college students, professional people, families, lovers, nearby apartment dwellers and the homeless. People picnic under the trees and take their dogs for a romp. Even on the hottest summer day, it is one of the coolest spots in downtown.
The park even draws visitors like Rosa Shook of San Diego, California. Under the shade of an Arizona Ash, Shook had come to the park while she was visiting her godmother in Phoenix.
“We need less concrete, more trees,” said Shook, who looks for green spaces wherever she travels.
She said that she should not have to travel far to find a place of natural respite, and another shaded oasis is just a couple blocks away from the park.
Surrounded by lush flora and sheltered by a thick, overlapping canopy from mesquites and palo verdes, the Virginia G. Piper Plaza is a quiet green oasis hidden between St. Mary’s Basilica and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix building. The area includes several benches, a sidewalk that winds its way through the grass and a bronze statue of Pope John Paul II to commemorate his 1987 visit to Phoenix.
Anthony Garcia, a junior at ASU studying health sciences, has visited the plaza as many as three times a week to pray, meditate and escape the hustle and bustle of downtown.
“I know that area well,” said Garcia. “It [is] very shaded and has a lot of water, both of which are pretty hard to find in Arizona. [It’s] a very peaceful place.”
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