Project utilizing Coast Salish plants to combat heat waves on the DTES

UBC student Alexandra Thomas leading re-greening project in consultation with knowledge-keepers and community organizations
Two people stand in a sunny forest on the UBC campus
Alexandra Thomas and Pablor Beimler at UBC in the trees outside of the sustainability building. Photo by Amei-lee Laboucan

As the summers get hotter, people in the Downtown Eastside face the brunt of heat waves as city surfaces like asphalt, metal and concrete collect and amplify warmth.

Alexandra Thomas, Naxnagəm, envisions a future where the urban hub on xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and səlilwətaɬ territories return to how it once was — lush with Coast Salish plants that create cooling effects and healing while also purifying the air.

“I think that [plant knowledge] is one of the biggest resources we have lost in a lot of our Indigenous communities,” said Thomas. “They sustained us and kept us alive for millennia, and they have so much power, whether it be medicinal or food or tools.”

Thomas is a Forestry Resources Management undergraduate student minoring in Community and Aboriginal Forestry at the University of British Columbia (UBC). She is Kwakwaka’wakw and Coast Salish, with maternal lineage from Tlowitsis First Nation and paternal lineage from shíshálh First Nation.

The name Naxnagəm was given to her by her maternal grandmother and roughly translates to “the time of day when dawn is breaking over the horizon.”

Thomas’s re-greening the DTES project proposal was selected to receive the money from UBC’s Indigenous Strategic Initiatives Fund as part of a wider group of student projects

Thomas’s project is aimed at addressing heat islands (also referred to as heat domes or heat waves) in the DTES, and will provide opportunities for community connections through Indigenous ways of knowing — specifically Coast Salish plant knowledge.

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Thomas explained that she pitched the project because she saw how people were being affected by the heat waves hitting “Vancouver” during the past few summers.

“I had frustrations seeing that a lot of people were suffering, and there didn’t seem to be immediate relief,” she said.

Temperatures reaching 30 degrees can feel like 40 degrees in urbanized places like the DTES, said Thomas. Temperatures are expected to keep getting higher because of climate change, and with that will come more intense wildfires and the accompanying smoke billowing over “Metro Vancouver.”

“Plants put a lot more moisture into the air,” Thomas explained. “They suck heat and carbon dioxide out of the air. Giving plant cover, so trees and big shrubs block the sun from hitting the ground and does a great job at temperature reduction.”

Alexandra Thomas stands outside of the Forest Sciences Centre at UBC. Photo by Amei-lee Laboucan

Informed by knowledge-holders

Re-greening the DTES is in the beginning stages, as the funding was only recently approved. Going forward, the plan is to hold consultations and work with Indigenous organizations that already have strong connections with the DTES community and with individuals who know about Indigenous plants in those territories. 

Thomas is eager to connect with people who are generally interested in re-greening the DTES, or have Indigenous plant knowledge or other cultural knowledge they would like to share. 

“I want to build relationships with organizations or individuals in the Downtown Eastside so that we can let them know what we would like to do and ask for their feedback and engagement,” said Thomas.

“I want our decisions on plants and cultural knowledge to be informed by those from the areas of the Coast Salish and the Elders from nearby communities who have cultural plant knowledge and inform what kind of plants we should be planting.”

Walking the grounds outside the UBC Forestry Sciences Centre, Thomas spoke about her love of plants and how nature has been a healing force in her life. Thomas has worked in different capacities in different roles at UBC and beyond in her four years as an undergraduate student.

She learned about the Indigenous Strategic Initiatives Fund through Pablo Beimler, and Nadia Joe, project managers of the Climate Emergency at UBC Sustainability, and they encouraged Thomas to submit a proposal. 

“Pablo and Nadia are both people who helped me with this proposal and got me to the finish line of getting the funding approved,” said Thomas.

Thomas will be working as a project lead for the re-greening the DTES initiative as part of a flexible work-learn program with the Climate Hub, a student-led initiative that is part of UBC Sustainability and UBC Climate Emergency.

“The [Indigenous Strategic Initiatives Fund] only funds the project and Pablo was really great about getting me a work-learn opportunity with Climate Hub so I can be paid while doing this project,” said Thomas. 

From left to right: Pablo Beimler, Alexandra Thomas, Meghan Wise and Kaylie Higgs. Photo by Amei-lee Laboucan

Connections to nature

The Indigenous Strategic Initiatives Fund has a total of $4-million for its first year, combining years one and two. The money will be divided among three different streams that aim to address the Indigenous Strategic Plan. Student-led projects will receive $50,000 to fund a 12-18 month project.

Vicki Lynne George, the associate director of UBC’s Office of Indigenous Strategic Initiatives, said getting to the point of funding these projects has been exciting because of the long road that led up to this point.

“It has been a long journey to this point for a lot of people,” she said in a statement

“I was a student at UBC and was involved in the development of the Aboriginal Strategic Plan in 2008 so I know firsthand how far we’ve come, but I can equally see how far we have to go and how necessary it is that we do this important work.”

While the project is just getting on its feet and still must go through community consultations, get permits from the City of Vancouver and overcome other hurdles — Thomas hopes re-greening the DTES will eventually be a place for everyone to have relief and connection to the land. 

Thomas’ goal is to bring attention to how connection to nature and the land is not just for Indigenous communities, but for everyone.  

“All of us need a connection to nature to be healthy and well grounded.”

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