The temperature was flirting with triple digits when Rob Johnson pulled into a parking spot about as far from the front of the Lowe's store as a customer could get.
Johnson didn't mind the walk to the front door of the home improvement store at College Center in east Bakersfield. Finding a well-shaded parking spot was easily worth the inconvenience.
"When you park in the sun, the car's like an oven when you get back in it," he said. "I look for shade. Every time."
At River Run Plaza at Coffee Road and Olive Drive, Kulwant Singh Sangha used the same strategy. He parked beneath a tree with a healthy shade canopy, even though it was in mid-lot, a bit of a walk to the Albertson's.
"I see people parking $100,000 cars in the sun. I like the shade," he said.
It's a dance that's played out in parking lots all over Bakersfield during the scorching summer months. The shaded spots are like gold, and some shoppers will cruise until they find one.
Unfortunately, large shade trees are too often a rare luxury in the city's myriad commercial parking lots.
Melissa Iger, executive director of the Tree Foundation of Kern and a certified arborist, says the city's parking lots are notorious for sporting tiny twigs that don't deserve to be called trees, improperly pruned flora incapable of providing decent shade, and pitiful saplings that may never grow old.
Many owners and operators of commercial developments often prune trees in the spring or summer to keep their signage and store fronts unobstructed, or just because they lack the knowledge of fundamental tree care. It's a recurring practice that makes Iger want to scream.
Especially in a place like Bakersfield, where scrambling eggs on the sidewalk is child's play, and poor air quality is improved by the presence of trees.
"The International Society of Arboriculture guidelines for tree trimming are not followed here in Bakersfield, for the most part," Iger said. "No more than 20 percent of a tree’s canopy should be removed at one time. That would open the canopy and let wind flow through the leaves without much damage being done to the tree."
Unfortunately, it's common to see parking lot trees pruned down to nubs.
Some of the most bleak, ugly and scalding-hot parking lots are attached to developments that originally were required, as conditions of construction, to plant and maintain landscaping that included trees. Lots of trees.
Some owners and operators of commercial developments either so radically trim trees to keep their signage and store fronts in clear view from the street, or just neglect to maintain the required landscaping. Trees die from natural causes, intentional neglect or from over-pruning.
Last year, Bakersfield City Councilman Bruce Freeman led an effort to add wider and taller landscaping standards to the streetside edges of new commercial parking lots to keep them from looking like so many used car lots.
Many agree that it was a step in the right direction, but the new requirements do not address the need for shade for shoppers.
"The ordinance we passed did not address shade," Freeman said. The target of the ordinance was very specific, to avoid creating eyesores for passing motorists.
Freeman said shade trees are important in parking lots, but it's not an issue that he has been hearing about from his constituents.
"No one has brought that issue up since I've been on the council," he said. "If there's interest, the public has to speak up."
In truth, the problem isn't with lack of regulation through city ordinances.
Wayne Lawson, an assistant planner with the city of Bakersfield, said the requirements, called performance standards, are the same for parking lots at commercial, industrial and apartment complexes.
It's a standard that may surprise you.
Forty percent of the asphalt or concrete surface of a parking lot has to be shaded, Lawson said.
"Before 2001, the parking lot standard was 30 percent," he said.
But enforcement is not always possible as it is a function based on having adequate resources.
"We don't have landscape police out there," he said.
However the city's Code Enforcement section will investigate complaints that come in from the public.
For older parking lots that may be out of compliance, the filing of a building permit is usually what it takes to attract the attention of the city.
"If someone comes in for a permit and we notice deficiencies in the landscaping, we can use the permit as leverage for the applicant to take corrective action to address the deficiencies," Planning Director Kevin Coyle said in an email.
Iger and others would like to see more done. Require the city's vast parking lots be planted with shade trees that are allowed to grow larger than a bush. Require code enforcement officers to annually inspect projects to determine if the landscaping is being properly maintained. Require commercial property owners to replace dying or dead trees.
At Olive Plaza, a shopping center on Olive Drive near Highway 99, several planters are without trees. At least six trees could be added to the total.
At the FoodMaxx on Chester Avenue, a dead tree has been standing barren and ugly for years.
At College Center on Columbus, tiny trees that don't throw any appreciable shade share the lot with some much healthier trees.
Indeed, as Iger says in her list of the best- and worst-shaded lots, it's not difficult to spot tree problems in Bakersfield's commercial parking lots.