Tree canopy, pocket parks could make La Crosse cooler

Living and working in downtown La Crosse, Lewis Kuhlman is very aware of how the summer heat affects the urban environment.  

Lewis Kuhlman faces the camera and smiles. He is wearing a navy polo shirt.
Lewis Kuhlman

“The sun reflects off the buildings, and there’s not a tree in sight,” said Kuhlman, who is an environmental planner for the city of La Crosse. 

The city of La Crosse completed a climate action planning process in 2021, which included a ground cover study. To build on this work, Kuhlman applied to a program through the American Geophysical Union called Thriving Earth Exchange.

“Trying to encourage more alternative transportation and having a more pleasant environment to walk, bike, and ride the bus is important,” Kuhlman said. “Addressing urban heat islands became a personal issue for me.”  

Thriving Earth Exchange builds cohorts of community science projects across the nation. This program pairs participating communities with a Community Science Fellow, like a volunteer project manager, who then connects them with technical experts to solve a local issue related to natural hazards, the environment, or climate change.  

With support from UniverCity Alliance (UCA) and the international Educational Partnerships for Innovation in Communities Network (EPIC-N) that represents over 60 institutions across the world, Thriving Earth Exchange launched 14 projects in Wisconsin as part of a first-of-its-kind statewide model.  

“As Thriving Earth Exchange’s first state-based cohort, we are excited about how this collaboration has supported Wisconsin communities’ advocacy for their local priorities and enabled projects to receive tailored support from Wisconsin-based Community Science Fellows and scientists,” AGU Thriving Earth Exchange Director Natasha Udu-gama said. “The partnerships with EPIC-N and UniverCity Alliance were key to the cohort’s success, and we hope to use what we have learned to co-create regionally-based community science initiatives.”

University of Wisconsin–Madison connections are evident through this project.

Natalie Chin faces the camera and smiles. She is wearing a green shirt.
Natalie Chin

The project’s fellow, Natalie Chin, is a climate and tourism outreach specialist at Wisconsin Sea Grant, which is headquartered at UW–Madison. Chin connected this project with Master of Public Affairs students in the La Follette School of Public Affairs who studied this topic as a capstone project.

“It’s been difficult to find technical experts with capacity to work on this project, so I was really excited when it was selected by the capstone team,” Chin said. “It’s important work that has real implications for the city of La Crosse.”

The direct relationship with a Wisconsin community resonated with the students. 

A photo of Ariana Hammersmith who is wearing a yellow shirt and has brown hair
Ariana Hammersmith

“The fact that the project is so local was really important to me,” said Ariana Hammersmith MPA’23. “The opportunity to work on something that is very tangible and at the local level in Wisconsin was really exciting.” 

Embedding a community-based project into a university course follows the EPIC model of leveraging academic resources to solve local challenges. UCA’s hallmark program UniverCity Year (UCY) follows this model and has seen it work in 29 Wisconsin communities

“Universities have a lot to offer and learn from communities, and this model unlocks the potential of these partnerships,” UCA Managing Director Gavin Luter said.  

This isn’t the first time UCA has worked on heat-related projects. UCA supports the Wisconsin Heat Health Network, which is researching a warning system in Madison and Milwaukee based on health outcomes that considers mortality and weather data rather than only meteorology.

Expanding green space 

Hammersmith and five of her fellow classmates studied the heat island effect – when an urban area is significantly warmer than surrounding areas due to manufactured structures that absorb more heat than natural landscapes – in the city of La Crosse and paid specific attention to resident health, economic conditions, and environmental justice. 

They discovered that green space is inequitably allocated in La Crosse based on race and income and that the city can best improve the inequity by increasing urban vegetation. 

After evaluating policy options, the students recommended that La Crosse: 

  • Expand the urban tree canopy and create pocket parks to mitigate the urban heat island effect
  • Target green space expansion to areas with vulnerable populations and those lacking access to green space.
  • Study the feasibility of green roof construction on municipal buildings 

“The green space expansion was interesting to me because it was so implementation focused,” Hammersmith said. “La Crosse knows they have this problem of urban heat islands and that is pretty localized to really specific neighborhoods. We tried to figure out how you best target an intervention.”  

The students analyzed tree canopy, impervious surfaces, land surface temperature, and demographic characteristics at the census tract level and census block group level to inform their recommendations. This also allowed them to recommend that La Crosse prioritize specific census tracts.

Samuel Russell MPA’23 said utilizing data to recommend policy conclusions was a new skill he learned through the MPA program. 

“It was a great experience to dive into data and use data effectively,” Russell said. 

An image of Manuel Teodoro who is smiling and wearing a suit jacket and blue shirt without a tie
Manuel Teodoro

Professor of Public Affairs Manny Teodoro, who taught the course, said the project with La Crosse became a “crown jewel for the department.”

Teodoro said the project balanced an interesting research question that was “big enough to be meaningful” with enough data to gain traction on important questions but wasn’t so unwieldy that it couldn’t be completed by the students during the semester. 

“The La Crosse project ended up being an optimal mix of size, question, and availability of data,” Teodoro said. 

Providing projects from community partners is critical to the students’ learning experiences. In the classroom, students are taught theory and analytical methods, but it’s with a tangible project that students can discover the iterative process of conducting policy analysis. 

Teodoro said these projects are also meaningful to the students “who are really motivated to work in the public sector to help make the world a better place.”

“The recommendations you’re making are going to shape actual decisions,” Teodoro said. “That fits in with the Wisconsin Idea.” 

In the case of this La Crosse project, the students’ work is already influencing results. Kuhlman said the city is using the research to bolster a forestry grant application for more tree planting in a specific census tract. 

“They opened up some really interesting opportunities,” Kuhlman said. 

—Abigail Becker