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Miami-Dade has been planting more trees to protect from extreme heat. A new study shows an uphill battle

 Volunteers get ready to plant trees and shrubs at Larry and Penny Thompson Memorial Park in South Dade
Daniel Rivero
Volunteers get ready to plant trees and shrubs at Larry and Penny Thompson Memorial Park in South Dade. The county's goal is to achieve 30 percent tree canopy cover by 2030, up from about 20 percent in 2016.

A study has found that the tree canopy cover for Miami-Dade County has “not significantly changed” after five years of aggressive planting.

Five years ago, a study commissioned by Miami-Dade County found that only 19.9% of the land within the urban development boundary is covered by tree canopy.

The study set off alarms, as the county government started paying attention to extreme heat events, coupled by the fact that areas with lower tree cover were seeing faster temperature increases than areas with more trees.

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“Part of that assessment we found that some areas of Miami-Dade County have as little as 3 percent tree canopy,” said Gabriela Lopez, the community image manager for Neat Streets Miami, a county board that handles tree planting efforts and tree giveaways.

“So we focus a lot of our work in those areas,” she said.

The 2016 study gave way to the Million Trees Miami program, an effort to aggressively plant trees across urban areas to ultimately provide at least 30% tree canopy cover by 2030.

But now, an updated study has found that the tree canopy cover for the county has “not significantly changed” for the county.

After five years of planting trees, the estimated amount of tree cover is only 20.1 percent — an increase the study says is “not significantly distinct” from five years ago.

That percentage is overall, across all of Miami-Dade County. Some cities and municipalities, like North Miami, Miami, Miami Beach, Miami Shores and Miami Gardens gained tree cover. Pockets of some areas that have gained tree cover and greenery have seen surface temperatures drop since 2016.

The biggest amount of tree cover loss as a percentage of the city or neighborhood’s area was in Kendall, Florida City, Hialeah, South Miami, Palmetto Bay, Coral Gables, Medley, Doral and Pinecrest.

New developments in Florida City and Hialeah in particular are cited as major reasons for tree canopy loss in those cities. Hialeah was already one of the areas most in need of tree planting, according to the 2016 survey.

Neat Streets Miami
Daniel Rivero
Gabriela Lopez, right, with volunteers and staff at a tree planting event at Larry and Penny Thompson Memorial Park in South Dade.

Part of the reason for the decline in some other parts of the county have more to do with mother nature running its course, said Lopez.

“Hurricane Irma luckily didn’t hit us as badly as it could have, but the wind really did just do a lot of damage and we estimate that, just in county parks alone, we lost about 30 percent of our tree canopy because of the wind,” she said.

“We expect that. We expect trees to die off every once in a while. That is just part of nature,” she said. “On the streets, cars hit trees. We replace them when we can. That is part of the natural cycle.”

Jane Gilbert is Miami-Dade County’s first chief heat officer, tasked with working across county government agencies to help residents respond and adapt to rising temperatures. She said that while some could write-off planting trees to fight extreme heat as an oversimplification, the data clearly show that trees are part of the solution for places like Hialeah, areas of Little Havana, Kendall and Doral.

“It’s areas throughout the county, and they’re micro-environments. So you can have a big change in a small area, just because of the tree cover,” Gilbert said.

One area of Medley, a warehouse and industry-heavy city, saw surface temperatures rise nearly 16 degrees after tree-covered land was developed into parking lots and buildings, according to the study.

Tree cover losses and gains Miami-Dade
Miami-Dade County Urban Tree Canopy Assessment
Losses and gains of tree canopy in Miami-Dade County, by percent, from 2016 and 2020. In general the northeast parts of the county gained tree canopy, while the south and central parts lost canopy. The highest amount of tree canopy acreage lost was in Kendall, according to the updated study. Kendall lost 2 square kilometers of tree cover between 2016 and 2020, amounting to a 4.7 percent loss.

Gilbert said trees need to be regarded as infrastructure that is important to the quality of life of residents, which in the long run could help keep Miami-Dade County more livable, even as temperatures are expected to continue to rise.

“Take a bus stop," said Gilbert. “If you build a structure to shade people — you know how hot it can be here in Miami — it won’t have nearly the cooling effect as a well shaded bus stop from trees. And so that is more effective infrastructure.”

Extreme heat has become such a concern for Miami-Dade County that Mayor Daniela Levine Cava announced at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, earlier this month, that next year will be the nation's first "heat season" in Miami-Dade County. It will run from May 1 through Oct. 31.

“We are having so many people that are living in substandard conditions, cannot pay utility bills, do not have working air conditions, or they work in the field and they need to have respite,” Levine Cava said.

Neat Streets Miami organizes tree plantings across the county, on county-owned land, and works with municipalities to increase canopy cover. The group also organizes tree giveaways to residents. Much of the work is funded through corporate sponsorships.

Lopez, who works with the board, said one positive thing is that — despite the natural and human-driven setbacks for expanding tree cover in Miami-Dade County — individual residents can make a major difference on their own.

“They have a huge role to play, that’s really one of the largest green spaces that we have available, is people’s backyards, and their yard,” she said. “So if everyone took a vested interest in even planting one tree, it would be amazing.”

Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. Before joining WLRN, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion.