As the weather heats up, advocates call for more trees in Vancouver's poorest neighbourhood
City of Vancouver says neighbourhood is a ‘challenging environment’ for planting new trees
On hot summer days, especially when the sun's glare is at its fiercest, residents of the Downtown Eastside say they struggle to find shade.
"If there were more trees, it would be better. It helps the air," said DTES resident Jessika Anuroff.
"Sometimes these umbrellas don't do it," said Anuroff. She and fellow resident, Amber Parker, are set up on a sidewalk in East Hastings under the hot sun without any shade.
They are stationed in the heart of an urban heat island where temperatures can spike due to high concentrations of cement and buildings that trap heat.
Downtown Eastside residents and those advocating on their behalf say more trees are needed to help cool down the streets and combat the effects of climate change in Vancouver's poorer neighbourhoods.
According to the City of Vancouver, the Downtown Eastside is one of two neighbourhoods in the city with the hottest streets.
The city's most recent urban island heat island map from 2018 shows it and South Vancouver's Marpole area, with the highest street surface temperatures on a summer day — from 42 C to 49 C — while wealthier neighbourhoods, with more parks and trees, manage to stay cooler.
The report also cites mental illness, substance addiction and homelessness as factors contributing to heat vulnerability.
"The more we have these climate emergencies, the hotter it gets. You have to give people trees," said Garth Mullins, a member of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU).
In a statement to CBC, the City of Vancouver says it's trying to plant more trees, but the Downtown Eastside is a "challenging environment, both in that, it is a heavily urbanized area and with challenges [from] some members of the public."
"There have been videos posted online of individuals attacking newly planted trees in the Downtown Eastside for no apparent reason," it said. The city says juvenile trees can take years to get established, and "it can take only a few seconds to undo years of progress and growth."
Vancouver's urban forestry team set a target to double the tree density in the Downtown Eastside and Marpole by 2030. In 2020, they committed to expanding Vancouver's tree canopy to 30 per cent by 2050.
The Vancouver Park Board says it is targeting these areas with an intensive tree planning strategy. Work is underway to replace dead stumps in the Downtown Eastside and determine planting locations and species that can better resist intense heat.
Mullins stresses the importance of helping poorer neighbourhoods combat the effects of climate change, noting the disparity in access to cooler areas.
"Where the trees are is where the money is. And where the trees ain't is where the money ain't. It's not right," said Mullins. "If you're in a wealthier part of the city, it may be 20 degrees cooler, and you might also live 20 years longer."
He also notes how trees could benefit residents living inside hot buildings.
"Without trees, the sun shines directly on the buildings, and some of these SRO rooms don't have windows or good ventilation," said Mullins. "The coroner's inquiry during the heat dome found a lot of people died inside very hot rooms."
Shade fenced off in Crab Park
Even where there is ample shade, it can be out of reach for homeless people. At the encampment in Vancouver's Crab Park, many trees are behind fences.
The fences were put up at the end of April.
"The population here in the park is very impacted by the heat and really needs access to shaded areas," said Fiona York, an advocate for Crab Park. She has written to the park board to have the fences taken down.
The Vancouver Park Board says this area is closed off for remediation due to items found in the soil, and while this area offers some shade, other areas in the park also provide shade.
Without access to shade, it is hard to breathe, said Walter Wohlgemuth, who has lung issues.
"They put up gazebos and tarps to try to stay cool, but it's been really hot here."
The Vancouver Park Board says the area has been closed off for remediation because of items found embedded in the soil, and while it offers some shade, other areas in the park also provide shade.
Mullins says the city needs to act faster.
"It seems like summers are just going to be boiling hellscapes now and for the foreseeable future," said Mullins. "It's a climate emergency. We have to act like it."