As we brace ourselves for an upcoming five-day heatwave, with temperatures projected to soar into the triple-digits starting Sunday, August 13 (the highest temperatures yet of 2023) and increased wildfire risk across the Northwest, the Willamette Week broke a story saying that the trees that the City of Portland planted in East Portland two years ago during the deadly, June 2021 heat dome event, to create future shade and safety, have died because the City did not water them. As if this news isn’t bad enough, pictures of brown, brittle, bone-dry trees accompany the article. 

You see, in outer East Portland, we brace ourselves a little tighter than the rest of the City when heatwaves are announced, and that’s because the impact of heatwaves is felt here unequally. Two years ago when the triple-digit temperature phenomenon started wreaking havoc, according to Multnomah County, our area was where the majority of the 72 people who died as a result of the heatwave lived. The reality is that East Portland contains more concrete and far fewer trees to provide the much needed shade to keep temperatures at bay than other parts of the city. According to a Portland State University study reported in 2019, the neighborhoods are packed with “heat islands”—”patches of concrete that trap heat during the day and release it at night, never allowing the neighborhood to cool down.”

So it’s particularly distressing to learn that, in the wake of a deadly heatwave, after making a commitment to shade equity in East Portland through their tree-planting efforts to provide East Portland residents with more protection from the summer sun and resulting heat, the City has left these trees to die.

In June of last year, we also learned that the City ended its contract with Friends of Trees, the non-profit that has planted tens of thousands of residential trees in Portland over a 15-year period. Many of Thrive’s Partner organization members and other East Portland community members have lived experiences with receiving trees from Friends of Trees that are still alive and thriving today.

Although Friends of Trees focuses primarily on residential tree planting, it was an important resource for East Portland residents, offering not only trees at little or no cost, but a solid model for community involvement in the planting, maintaining, and caring for all trees. Where Friends of Trees built community confidence and resilience around tree planting, the City’s lack of foresight and absence of plans for maintaining the trees they planted, may have damaged the perception of what planting trees looks like and how communities ultimately benefit. If nothing else, it shows that community involvement is a necessary component of any shade equity endeavor, whether residential or commercial. 

Image from Willamette Week

In case you didn’t already know, Thrive East PDX has a ‘Tree Canopy Enhancement for Shade Equity’ Program. This program has been created by our East Portland members who live, work, and play here and was deemed a priority for our communities. Our members identify locations that need shade in our neighborhoods in order to demand action. The focus of this program is on commercial streets and developing shade along our critical commute and transportation pathways. Due to infrastructure requirements, the City must oversee this process; however, our communities’ involvement in the planting and maintaining of trees may prevent the senseless loss we just experienced and continue to experience from happening elsewhere and may also ensure the longevity of all trees and reaching our ultimate goal of creating and expanding shade to protect ourselves and our communities. If this seems like something you would like to be a part of, please don’t hesitate to reach out and help us demand action.

Thrive East PDX is a coalition of 20+ East Portland organizations who are working together to build community power and create an East Portland that doesn’t just survive, but thrives. 

Be sure to follow us on Instagram and Facebook at @thriveeastpdx where we post announcements about our neighborhood walks in each of the 13 neighborhoods in East Portland meant to bring neighbors together and advocate for planting and maintenance of drought-resistant native trees and shrubs along major commercial streets.  

And please stay safe during the heatwave this coming week, using these tips from Multnomah County.