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Adapting parks to keep them functional as the climate changes

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Millions of Americans rely on city parks for a chance to get some fresh air, to recharge. Climate change alters how and when people can enjoy the outdoors. NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports on what local officials are doing to adapt.

CLAIRE MILLER: Grab one of these little leaves and then...

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Claire Miller is a park ranger in Phoenix. And if park ranger makes you think, like, Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, think smaller. Claire works for the municipal government. And she does her park ranger-ing (ph) in city parks.

MILLER: So there's the saguaro. You kind of see it.

HERSHER: Oh, yeah. That's a gigantic cactus. Oh, my gosh.

MILLER: You see all the sticks in there?

HERSHER: Yeah.

MILLER: Looks like just a pile of sticks. That's the great horned owl's nest.

HERSHER: I met her in a city park in northern Phoenix on a hot morning in July. It was almost 100 degrees. The park begins in a neighborhood with rows of single-story houses, and a steep trail runs up into what looks like barren desert. But it's not barren.

MILLER: Yeah. Now I'm looking down here. You see that just - it looks like a pile of sticks and cactus - pieces of cactus trimmings. That's actually a pack rat nest. That's, like, animals' home.

HERSHER: Claire's life's work - this is her 35th year working in the parks here - is to make nature accessible to the people of Phoenix. The city has hundreds of acres of parkland, including miles and miles of trails. But in the summer, Claire's job gets harder because it gets so hot so frequently that it can be dangerous to hike. And she says people don't realize that they're in danger.

MILLER: They're like, well, how hard can it be? It's only a mile. And it's in the middle of the city. It's like, well, it's a mile straight up on nothing but rock. So we always joke about us being a hot pizza oven because, I mean, that sun - it just radiates, and that heat coming off of things is just brutal. And so they think, oh, it can't be that bad.

HERSHER: Like, it's right here in the middle of Phoenix.

MILLER: Exactly. But it is that bad.

HERSHER: Extreme heat is one of the many ways that climate change is putting stress on city parks, keeping people from enjoying them on one hand, and also threatening the plants and animals that live there and aren't necessarily built for a changing climate. The question for city governments across the country is, how can we protect urban parks and help them adapt to a hotter Earth?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Inaudible).

HERSHER: And on the other side of the country, in New York City, that question is top of mind for caretakers in Manhattan's Central Park.

Michelle Mueller Gamez is the director of climate change research with the Central Park Conservancy. She and I met on a warm, sunny day in a very cool and shady part of the park.

MICHELLE MUELLER GAMEZ: Yeah, I definitely think about - like, we want parks to be seen as part of the climate change solution.

HERSHER: She says city parks are threatened by climate change, yes, but they also help the trees and other plants absorb carbon dioxide. Green spaces soak up excess water to protect nearby roads and houses from flooding.

GAMEZ: We also know that the park itself can cool the adjacent neighborhoods. So this is why equity's really important, where parks are placed and how they're managed, so that they are cooling neighborhoods equitably.

HERSHER: But Gamez says there's a lot we don't know about how to manage city parks in a hotter world. Like, if native trees in a park are replaced by nonnative trees, does that change the park's cooling effects? What if you replace some trees with a soccer field or build a new swimming pool? To answer those questions, Gamez and her colleagues are working with scientists at the newly launched Central Park Climate Lab. The goal is to do research that's helpful not just in New York, but across the country, including in cities like Phoenix, where the city government is grappling with some serious heat-related problems in parks.

P.J. Dean is with the local firefighters union. He explains that the fire department has always been responsible for rescuing people who get hurt or sick when they're hiking in city parks.

P J DEAN: Obviously, in Phoenix, heat's nothing new for us, and it's something we've always been able to manage relatively well.

HERSHER: But the number of heat-related emergencies has skyrocketed. Even a twisted ankle can be life-threatening if the person is deep in a desert park, exposed to the blazing sun. Last year, there were back-to-back calls to 911 from hikers in city parks who needed to be rescued on a 115-degree day. And Dean says two of the rescuers ended up in the hospital with heat-related illness.

DEAN: And, I mean, these are triathletes. These are people who are in phenomenal shape who are very familiar with this work. And that was our wake-up call.

HERSHER: After that, the union asked the city to close parks on the hottest days to protect hikers and first responders. Now some of the most popular trails are closed on days when there's an excessive heat warning. But they stay open later into the evening to encourage people to get outside when it's less hot. It's an example of how cities are looking for solutions to make sure parks are a place where people can recharge even as the climate warms.

Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.