Health equity and heat 

by Kiran Sabharwal

As the summer heats up, we’ll all be looking for shade. But finding a cool spot beneath a tree in Richmond and Henrico can be trickier in some neighborhoods than others. Not only do neighborhoods with fewer trees have less shade to cool off, higher temperatures in these neighborhoods lead to more heat-related illnesses like heat exhaustion and heat stroke. High temperatures can also impact chronic health conditions.

Tree canopy cover looks different across our communities. Explore the Tree Equity Score National Explorer to see more maps like this one.

During hot summer months, these areas can experience even more extreme temperatures because of the urban heat island effect. Urban heat island effect means that areas built with lots of dark pavement and little tree cover are hotter than shaded areas. Communities in Richmond and Henrico that historically experienced housing discrimination such as redlining in the 1930s see far hotter temperatures than neighborhoods elsewhere in the city today.

How does tree cover shape health? The way that neighborhoods are designed, from tree cover to public transportation access and green space availability, is an important social determinant of health. The inequitable distribution of tree cover across Richmond and Henrico deepens health inequities already in place in our communities.

Urban heat island effect is like a positive feedback loop; while many people can cool off at home, folks struggling with housing insecurity or expensive energy bills may need to look for public places to cool off, like libraries or public pools. For residents who do not own a car, walking or riding the bus might be their only option, but they may be exposed to extreme temperatures while waiting at an unsheltered bus stop.

What do next steps look like? The City of Richmond is getting ready to create an Urban Forestry Master Plan, and residents can stay tuned for upcoming opportunities to help cool the hottest parts of the city. Meanwhile, Henrico County is working on reforestation efforts at county parks. You can also check out organizations like Southside ReLeaf and Groundwork RVA that are working to increase tree cover in our area.