ACTrees Guest Editorial: Shade Policies and Urban Forestry Objectives: A Disconnect?

By Richard J. Dolesh, National Recreation and Park Association
Washington, DC (September 16, 2013)

A recent survey on shade policies and shade features conducted by GP RED, a Colorado-based non-profit, has produced some interesting findings, not just for the field of public parks and recreation, but also for proponents of urban forestry since some of the findings relate to the health benefits of shade.

Rich Dolash NRPA

Richard J. Dolesh, National Recreation and Park Association

The survey of professionals from parks, recreation, and public health fields found that only a fifth of the agencies and organizations responding had formal polices regarding providing shade in outdoor facilities, and less than a third addressed providing shade in their local planning process.

Disconnect With the Health Benefits of Urban Forests

Recent concern about the prevalence of skin cancers due to UV radiation exposure has heightened medical and public perception about the need to limit exposure to the sun during peak UV radiation hours.

But the fact that so few public agencies consider provision of shade in the planning process (70% do not) and that 13% of respondents didn’t even know if they addressed shade in the planning process, shows at a minimum that there is a disconnect in promoting some of the health benefits of trees and urban forests, namely the prevention of chronic disease from solar radiation.

walking at a park 2There were some geographic differences in responses, with slightly higher rates of consideration of shade in the South and the West, but the most surprising finding is the large number of public agencies and organizations that have NOT made the connection between planning and implementation of policies that would promote health, even when these organizations have a natural affinity to providing healthier environments for the public.

Significant Interest in Shade Through Tree Planting

This survey did not distinguish how shade was provided, whether by shade structures or trees. Most park and recreation agencies do provide shade in active outdoor recreation areas with high solar exposure. However, the extensive comments made by respondents to the request to “Please share any information on policies, code-provisions, or news related to best practices in providing shade” shows that there was significant, if not major, interest in how shade could be provided through tree-planting.

Also, it should be noted that just because there is no formal shade policy or ordinances requiring consideration of shade in the planning process, it does not necessarily mean that park planners, landscape architects, and urban planners don’t take it seriously.

Considerations Around Costs of Installation and Maintenance

A number of survey respondents commented that they did take providing shade to park visitors into consideration and questioned why they would need an ordinance to require it when it was just common sense. Yet, even with these responses, it is telling that the majority of professionals in organizations that have health as part of their mission do not rank providing shade as important in their planning process.

trees in  parksThis finding is significant to proponents of the benefits of urban forestry for several reasons. When asked why their organizations did not specifically recommend or require shade in outdoor recreation areas, the two highest rated factors cited by respondents why they did not were: “cost of installation” and “cost of maintenance.”

The survey did not examine the relative costs of providing shade from trees versus the capital and maintenance costs of providing shade from man-made structures—that is an intriguing question for future research, however. The survey did identify a number of sources of funding for shade—primarily park and recreation budgets (80%), and to a much lesser degree, grants, developer contributions, tree-replacement funds, and private donations.

This survey indicates that there seems to be a disconnect between agency-level and community-level planning objectives for the health benefits of shade that come from relatively inexpensive and naturally beautiful and beneficial trees. It leaves one wondering how great this disconnect is in the public’s mind as well.

Get a summary of findings from the GP RED survey or download the complete report.

Richard J. Dolesh joined NRPA in 2001 and serves as the Vice President for Conservation and Parks. He’s responsible for development and implementation of national policy and initiatives related to conservation, environmental stewardship, and parks. Recent work includes leading NRPA’s Parks Build Community initiative, coordinating the Parks for Mitigation demonstration projects, and working with the National Wildlife Federation to connect 10 million kids to nature and the outdoors over the next three years. Rich represents NRPA on a number of coalitions and advisory groups including the Sustainable Urban Forestry Coalition, the steering committee for Natural Play and Learning Area guidelines, and the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES). Rich is a frequent contributor to NRPA’s Parks and Recreation Magazine, and has written numerous articles on parks and natural resources in publications including The Washington Post and National Geographic Magazine.