On Tuesday, when temperatures maxed out at 92 degrees, patches of shade on 54th Street were scarce. Around noon, the only shade accessible on the South LA street was cast by buildings—and four umbrellas newly installed by the city behind four bus benches.
But even that shade was minimal. And the umbrellas, although anchored into the ground, were so lightweight that Nayeli Alvarenga, a student at the nearby high school asked: “What if someone takes it?”
The umbrellas are only temporary. They’re more of a symbol of what’s to come than a practical application; a sign that Los Angeles is slowly mobilizing to make its streets and sidewalks shadier.
The installation is part of Cool Street LA, a new program aimed at lowering temperatures in LA’s hottest and “most vulnerable” neighborhoods. Announced Tuesday, the program is incorporating LA’s highly publicized cool pavements pilot and taking a more “holistic” approach to lowering temperatures as Los Angeles heats up.
Led by the city’s Bureau of Street Services, the program will bring new plants and trees, streets coated with white paint, light-reflecting roofs, and shaded bus benches with umbrellas attached.
The goal is to have six Cool Street LA projects completed by 2021, and a total of 10 by 2025. The mayor’s deputy press secretary Harrison Wollman says the neighborhoods haven’t been selected yet, but the plan is to focus on corridors in areas where residents depend on public transportation.
On the stretch of 54th Street, between Fourth and Sixth avenues, the city planted 14 leafy London plane trees (none of them near bus stops), poured cool pavement, repaved cracked sidewalks, and installed a water fountain near the school.
“This is the first time we’re doing this combination, and ideally this is a great place that we felt checks all the boxes where we can bring multiple benefits together,” says Adel Hagekhalil, director of the Bureau of Street Services.
Urban heat island effect disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of color, where there tend to be fewer parks and green spaces and where residents heavily rely on public transportation. Part of LA’s Green New Deal, Mayor Eric Garcetti said Tuesday, is to focus on these communities that “should be first in line” to receive these new changes.
“Shade is an equity issue,” says Garcetti.
LA County is one of the fastest warming regions in the country. Some of the goals outlined in LA’s Green New Deal include reducing LA’s urban-rural temperature differential by 3 degrees by 2035, and ensuring every high-frequency transit stop has “cooling features” by 2021.
Using a holistic approach to neighborhood cooling can reduce heat-related deaths, according to Bryn Lindblad, deputy director of Climate Resolve, which is part of the Los Angeles Urban Cooling Collaborative. That approach might include “urban greening, transforming hard surfaces to be more reflective so they don’t absorb and re-radiate as much solar radiation in the form of heat, providing more shade, and improving access to drinking water and rest areas.”
Planting trees is the most effective way to cool down an urban environment. Research has also found that cool roofs can lessen the number of people exposed to heat waves in California without adding much additional cost.
Since 2017, the city has also been testing cool pavement to lower temperatures on streets. It started applying the gray-colored reflecting surface in Canoga Park, then later throughout the San Fernando Valley, including Sun Valley and Pacoima.
But although the cooling benefits from cool pavements may eventually be achieved on a regional scale, how they improve the experience for someone walking or biking on that pavement is disputed. Research cited by a recent story in CityLab showed that cool pavements can actually make a person using the street feel warmer—by more than seven degrees—because people absorb the reflected heat.
On Tuesday, the city’s chief design officer Christopher Hawthorne also announced a workshop where design firms will develop “cost-effective” shade structures for the 750 new bus benches the city plans to install by December 2020, including the benches that are part of Cool Street LA.
“We need to start thinking of shade as a kind of infrastructure and from every angle,” Hawthorne said. “We plant trees to provide shade. we could design our street furniture so that it can provide shade.”