Austin works for 50% citywide tree canopy cover by 2050

Expanding the urban forest could reduce heat


Daderot | Public Domain
The Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail in Austin, Texas
Gwendolyn Reed

Communications Intern

41% of Austin is covered by trees – not enough to keep up with the urban heat island that accompanies our state’s scorching summer temperatures or other environmental challenges. The tree canopy varies by neighborhood – from a low of 11.2% in the North Burnet neighborhood to a high of in 49.4% in East Oak Hill. So the city’s urban forest plan is working to get to at least 50% citywide tree canopy cover by 2050. 

It’s no secret that Texas is having one of its hottest summers yet. With perpetual excessive heat warnings, our state is breaking records for intensity and duration of extreme temperatures.

That heat is compounded in urban areas such as Austin. Infrastructure and impermeable material including buildings, concrete and pavement continually absorb and re-emit the sun’s heat. Additionally, an abundance of pollution from vehicles and factories trap heat and thus slow any nighttime cooling.

This phenomenon is referred to as an urban heat island, where urban areas experience higher temperatures than their rural counterparts. 

Studies show that people of all ages who live in cities are increasingly more likely to experience heat-related illnesses.

What we can do

A promising way to combat the urban heat island effect is through urban forestry. Urban forestry is the prioritizing of trees, plants and natural areas within densely populated cities. Expanding green spaces is known to combat the brutal urban heat that so many city residents encounter daily.

Planting trees in streets and parks, on rooftops, residential areas and more can have a profound impact and is noted as one of the most effective ways to moderate rising temperatures.

Because dense cities tend to lack ample flora, reprioritizing this resource provides us hope for a cooler, greener future.

How it works

One reason this works is because plants evapotranspirate. During evapotranspiration, plants release water from the soil into the air as water vapor, which is then evaporated by the sun and later released back through clouds and precipitation. When the sun’s energy is used to evaporate this water, less of its energy is used to heat the ground. A lack of plants and trees means less water to absorb, resulting in quicker and more aggressive heating of the earth.

Additionally, shade is a solace from the beating summer sun, and the power of a shady tree shouldn’t be forgotten. Both their cooling and shading abilities work hand in hand to cool down the great outdoors and put less strain on the power grid. Research shows that areas with urban forests are approximately 2.9 degrees cooler than unforested urban areas.

What Austin is doing:

The urban forestry plan was adopted by the city council in 2014. It maps the vision for our urban forest by 2034 and lays the groundwork for the ideal future. Including a detailed list of goals to be accomplished, it considers funding, tree maintenance, native species, data management, partnerships, community involvement, and more. Each year, the council revisits this plan as they document progress and plan next steps.

During creation of the plan, the city of Austin’s public engagement allowed them to hear from thousands of residents through events, surveys, meetings and outreach. From the results came a summarized list of the Top 5 Citizen goals for the urban forest.

Top 5 Citizen Goals for the Urban Forest 

1) Sustainability of the urban forest (i.e. resistance to drought, climate conditions, etc.) 

2) Quality of care of public trees

 3) Consistent funding and management across City departments 

4) Protecting wildlife and habitat

5) Preservation of historic and important trees

Their efforts have yielded much success thus far, bringing the beauty of nature into the hustle and bustle of the city and providing long-term cooling and well-being benefits to Austin residents. In 2021, the city enabled $1.5M urban forest investment in Austin. The funds went towards 10,000 new trees in high priority areas, educational and awareness opportunities, care projects and more.

An amendment to the budget of the city of Austin increased funding for tree planting by $650,000. The measure by Council Member Ryan Alter expanded the Neighborwoods Community Tree Planting Program, prioritizing tree planting opportunities in underserved areas.

The funds will double the amount of trees that Neighborwoods plants every year, and the initiative plans to address damage done to Austin’s tree population by extreme weather events and invest in the city’s long term climate equity goals.

“We know how hot it’s been,” Alter said. “But more trees, especially in areas like East Austin that lack a full tree canopy, will help mitigate the effects of climate change for decades to come.”

Possible challenges:

Challenges include lack of productive public land management, insufficient resources to promote tree regulations, difficulty coordinating efforts to preserve native plants and diversify ecosystem, lack of resources for maintenance of our expansive and complex ecosystem, and biotic/abiotic stressors on plants.

Though the perceived challenges are many, the city of Austin’s partnerships, sponsors, community engagement, awareness and other efforts are combating obstacles and progressing our city toward our urban forestry goals.

Here’s what else needs to be done:

Opportunities abound to continue improving Austin’s natural areas for the benefit of our community and environment. Getting involved in the city’s many planting opportunities and outreach events is a great way to give back to the community and invest in our urban forest.


Gwendolyn Reed

Communications Intern

Luke Metzger

Executive Director, Environment Texas

As the executive director of Environment Texas, Luke is a leading voice in the state for clean air, clean water, clean energy and open space. Luke has led successful campaigns to win permanent protection for the Christmas Mountains of Big Bend; to compel Exxon, Shell and Chevron Phillips to cut air pollution at three Texas refineries and chemical plants; and to boost funding for water conservation, renewable energy and state parks. The San Antonio Current has called Luke "long one of the most energetic and dedicated defenders of environmental issues in the state." He has been named one of the "Top Lobbyists for Causes" by Capitol Inside, received the President's Award from the Texas Recreation and Parks Society for his work to protect Texas parks, and was chosen for the inaugural class of "Next Generation Fellows" by the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at UT Austin. Luke, his wife, son and daughters are working to visit every state park in Texas.

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