Shade removal in a heat wave is ‘climate violence,’ says UCLA professor

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Trees, like these ones in Whitter, can make a person feel 20 to 50 degrees cooler than someone standing in the sun, according to UCLA Professor V. Kelly Turner. Photo by Shutterstock.

As climate change makes blistering heat waves more common, shade — who has access to it, and who controls that access — has become a heated and increasingly political issue. 

A recent instance of shade removal made national headlines: NBCUniversal trimmed ficus trees outside its studio as striking members of the Writers Guild of America marched the picket line in 90-degree heat. 

The studio denied the move was intended to break up the strike, but is being fined $250 by the city for the unpermitted trimming. 

Investigative journalist Lexis-Olivier Ray covered “tree-gate” for LA Taco, and says it’s not the first time he’s seen shade removal used to shoo people away. He points to another recent instance where an LAPD officer requested the removal of trees that were sheltering an encampment for unhoused people. 

“I've also seen tree trimmings used to displace [unhoused] people because when they come in to trim these trees, they often have to remove anyone in the area,” he says. “And this isn't something that is just being organized by private businesses and landowners. This is something that city officials are actually participating in and facilitating.”

Kelly Turner, an associate professor of urban planning and geography at UCLA, calls the act of intentionally removing shade in the midst of dangerously high temperatures “climate violence.” 

“Heat is incredibly detrimental to the human body and standing outside all day long during a heat wave, like we're having right now, can cause even healthy people to suffer heat stroke,” she says. “And that's not to mention somebody who might have a comorbidity that makes them even more susceptible to heat.”

In the past, LA city officials have also advocated for shade removal to increase visibility in high-crime areas — like in 2017, when now-resigned City Councilmember Nury Martinez released a plan to trim trees as part of a crackdown on sex trafficking in her district. 

Turner is skeptical of crime prevention tactics like this, noting that they might in fact have the opposite effect. 

“One thing we know about heat is that it can cause cognitive impairments. It can cause things like making people angrier and more violent. There are definitely studies that have shown correlations between extreme heat events, and things like gun violence,” she says. 

Residents in some LA neighborhoods already suffer disproportionately from the consequences of severe heat, because there was never shade to begin with. Racist practices like redlining prevented areas that were home to people of color from being invested in, and many of those areas remain shade deserts today. 

“If you look at neighborhoods like Beverly Hills or North Santa Monica, you can see the difference in the tree canopy in those neighborhoods,” says Ray. 

Turner says that instead of removing shade, LA needs to move policy in the opposite direction. She says there are too many regulatory restrictions that make it tough to build shade infrastructure at, for example, bus stops, and those structures are going to be increasingly necessary as the world gets hotter.

“It's going to take a setting-by-setting, whole of government approach, where we look at all the regulations that make it really hard to do the right thing,” she says.