Shading inequality: How urban trees turn down the heat

UBC PhD student So Hoi Kay's research redefines urban heat dynamics through the "cool" science of trees, aiming to create equitable urban cooling for everyone in Vancouver.

"The hottest neighbourhoods in Vancouver are actually cooler!" 

For urban forest researcher So Hoi Kay, these aren't just mixed metaphors, but a literal assessment of the cooling power of trees — and their unequal distribution between affluent and less-affluent neighbourhoods. 

"Hotter neighbourhoods — in the real estate sense — often have more trees and therefore are less hot temperature-wise," says Hoi Kay. "I am intrigued by the irony of it all!" 

With a background in geography, Hoi Kay has focused her graduate studies on understanding the crucial role trees play in regulating extreme heat in urban settings — particularly in vulnerable communities. 

"Urban heat is a pervasive problem, but its effects are not evenly distributed," says Hoi Kay. "Our bodies and our buildings are not built to handle extreme cases of heat — especially for people living in traditionally colder climates, like Vancouver." 

The impact of heat on different populations drives her research at UBC Vancouver — in large part, thanks to donor funding. A recipient of the Future Forests Fellowship, an award only given every four years, Hoi Kay knows the impact donor support has for her research and community engagement. 

"Receiving the fellowship was a turning point," says Hoi Kay. "It's not just about the money — it's about affirmation. People believe in my work, inspiring me to push boundaries." She adds, "I feel confident and inspired to work even harder." 

From Singapore, Hoi Kay chose to do her PhD at the UBC Faculty of Forestry, attracted by its reputation for excellence. She is now part of the faculty’s Urban Natures Lab — a collaborative research group led by Dr. Lorien Nesbitt. 

"I was looking specifically to the Faculty of Forestry because it had a very robust research support experience — in terms of faculty, opportunities for students, and collaboration." 

While Hoi Kay's research into urban forests involves data gathering — her interviews with community members are equally important. 

"Understanding the stories of vulnerable communities during extreme heat events is crucial. It's not just about numbers — it's about people's experiences," says Hoi Kay. 

Hoi Kay's vision for her research extends to creating more equitable and resilient urban spaces accessible to everyone. While she recognizes the multi-year timelines involved with translating research into public policy, she remains hopeful her work will help alleviate the effects of climate change. 

"There's this idea of praxis, which is the translation of theory into practice," says Hoi Kay. "I hope my research alleviates some of the negative heat events people experience — especially for vulnerable populations." 

Hoi Kay also has a passion for volunteering — with a keen interest in programs assisting climate vulnerable populations. "I think this very closely intersects and intertwines with my research — because elderly, low-income, and unhoused populations are some of the most vulnerable to heat," says Hoi Kay. “Volunteering is an important way to connect with community — and give back outside of the research relationship with my participants.” 

For Hoi Kay, donors to UBC are not just contributors to individual education — they serve as catalysts for positive change — ensuring a brighter future for all. Their support inspires her as she navigates the complexities of urban forest research toward a future of greater resilience during extreme heat events.   

"A lot of where I am at mentally with the confidence, inspiration, and motivation to keep doing what I'm doing comes from receiving this donor support," says Hoi Kay. "There are people who believe in my work, which inspires me to do more — to not disappoint them." 

Forestry researchers like Hoi Kay are committed to making a difference in a field with a diverse scope and a commitment to sustainability. Consider giving to the Faculty of Forestry Bursary to allow students to pursue their dreams.