A Triple Whammy Has Left Many Inner-City Neighborhoods Highly Vulnerable to Soaring Temperatures

Climate change, heat islands and disinvestment have led New York to subsidize air conditioners and Phoenix to cool street corridors and public housing.

A person lays on the street near Times Square during a heatwave in New York, on Wednesday, June 30, 2021. Credit: Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A person lays on the street near Times Square during a heatwave in New York, on Wednesday, June 30, 2021. Credit: Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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In New York City, several Hunts Point residents have lists of neighbors they’re checking on to help keep the most vulnerable alive during heat waves. 

The city has also subsidized 74,000 air conditioners for low-income, elderly residents and is spending tens of millions to plant trees, as part of a “cool neighborhoods” program that also includes outdoor water misters.

In Phoenix, the nation’s hottest big city, officials are working with residents to develop a new model for cooler public housing and cooling key street and pedestrian corridors. Phoenix and Arizona State University say they are developing a system that all cities could use to benchmark heat management.

Because of their experience with killer heat, New York City and Phoenix are leading the way among American cities in an effort to cool down and help vulnerable residents survive heat waves. But for all they are doing, climate change means they, like most cities, will need to do even more to keep their cities livable, according to experts, advocates and city officials.

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As large swaths of North America sizzle through another hot summer and record heat waves, cities face a triple heat whammy.

Climate change is bearing down, messing with weather in new ways that can exacerbate and supercharge heat waves, as Seattle and Portland discovered in late June. Urban cores can be 10 degrees or more warmer than the surrounding countryside, because of the way cities have been built, with so much pavement, so many buildings and not enough trees. And decades of disinvestment in neighborhoods where people of color live have left them especially vulnerable to heat.

“As a society, as a country, we are not ready for this, the future,” said Juan Declet-Barreto, the senior social scientist for climate vulnerability with the Union of Concerned Scientists, which published a report on killer heat in 2019. Excessive heat and other extreme weather made worse by climate change are “happening now,” he said. “We’re watching the trailer for the climate change disaster film that we’re going to screen very soon.”

From California to Maine, Scorching Temperatures 

As researchers have documented, heat-related mortality in the United States has been declining for decades. But that trend may be coming to an end, in part because of an increase in the number of heat events, said Kent State University geography professor Scott Sheridan.

During a 10-year period ending in 2018, heat mortality continued to decline for people over 65, probably a result of improved public messaging, according to a peer reviewed study published last year by the American Meteorological Society’s journal Weather, Climate and Society, led by Sheridan. But the researchers also found that there was an increase in mortality among men ages 45 to 64, especially in the southern and southwestern states, wiping out much of the gain in the older population. 

For many parts of the country, this summer has been a scorcher.

An early summer heat wave across the western United States broke all-time records in seven states, from Colorado to California, according to the National Weather Service. Phoenix topped 115 degrees for a record six straight days, reaching 118 on June 17. Records were also set in Tucson, Arizona, and tied in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Billings, Montana.

Then in late June, in a region not accustomed to triple digit temperatures, heat overwhelmed the Northwest, not just breaking records but “smashing them,” according to a weather service report. In all, there was a week of what the Washington State Department of Health described as “unprecedented” heat. Portland peaked at 116 degrees at its international airport on June 28.

This past week, temperatures again soared over the inland Northwest and across the northern tier. In Montana, the National Weather Service office in Billings on Monday reported that it had successfully made cookies on a shiny aluminum tray outside its office, where the temperature hit 111 degrees.

In the East, the cities of New York, Boston and Portland, Maine, have flirted with 100 degree temperatures, resulting in heat warnings and strained electrical grids. In all, there were four heat waves in the Northeast in which the temperature reached 90 degrees for three or more days, said Samantha Borisoff, a climatologist with the Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell University in New York, on Tuesday.

Multiple weather stations from Syracuse, New York, to Dulles Airport near Washington, D.C., set records for warm nights in June, she said. “Warm nights don’t allow the body to get relief from the heat, which can be particularly dangerous for high-risk populations and those without air conditioning,” she said.

Heat is the leading weather-related killer in the United States, and this summer, deaths are adding up.

Authorities have reported hundreds of deaths that are likely to be heat-related across the Northwest, including 117 in Washington State, with 29 in Seattle’s King County and 22 in Tacoma’s Pierce County. In Portland’s Multnomah County, a preliminary report tied 54 deaths to the heat wave—mostly older men who lived alone with no air conditioning.

Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said the deaths in the Northwest were maddening. “The deaths from heat waves are preventable,” he said. “When you see these kinds of outbreaks, I mean, in my view, they didn’t prepare well enough.”

The Seattle Times on Sunday reported that Seattle had no specific plan for a heat response, that only two of the city’s 26 community centers have air conditioning and that many of its public drinking fountains had been turned off because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Officials scrambled to open cooling centers at libraries and senior centers but some neighborhoods were left out.

“There needs to be thinking more about what climate change is going to throw at us, and how we can be better prepared,” Kristie Ebi, a professor at  the University of Washington Center for Health and the Global Environment, told the newspaper.

Most Cities Don’t Manage Heat Very Well 

Cities basically have two main heat problems confronting them: emergencies that require immediate action to save lives, and long-term issues related to combating soaring temperatures in the face of heat islands and global warming.

One reason so many cities are behind is that cities lack dedicated personnel and mandates to manage heat.

“If we were to show up at various city halls around the country, and ask who’s in charge of heat in their city, we wouldn’t get a very clear answer,” said David Hondula, a geographical sciences and urban planning professor at Arizona State University. “And we probably wouldn’t find anybody whose annual performance evaluation has anything to do with heat.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency requires cities or counties to conduct hazard mitigation planning, but for the most part the heat strategies are “embarrassing,” with minimal articulation of the problem or needed responses, he said.

Across the United States, hundreds of cities have adopted climate action plans, and many of those address heat in some way, said Vivek Shandas, a professor of climate adaptation at Portland State University. They are “great on paper,” he said, but in practice are generally not being implemented.

As a result of inaction, cities are keeping their most vulnerable at risk for heat-related deaths, he said.

Shandas was co-author of a study, published in 2020 in the journal Climate, that looked at heat across 108 urban communities and linked the higher temperatures to past practices of red-lining, the historical practice of refusing home loans or insurance to people in neighborhoods of color. They found that 94 of the areas they studied showed a pattern of higher surface temperatures in formerly redlined areas, compared to non-redlined neighborhoods, by as much as 12.6 degrees.

Disinvestment has continued in other ways since red-lining was banned in the 1960s, but with similar results. Shandas cited as an example at least one Portland heat death in June that he investigated.

“There were about 25 or so individual trailer homes,” he said. “These are metal boxes that were right on asphalt, and not only that, they get direct impact from the sun.”

With no air conditioning, he said, it could get “upwards of 130 to 140 degrees inside one of these homes. If you do have AC and you’re running it so hard, continually, the AC is likely to break, which is what happened to this older man who passed away from this heatwave.”

Benjamin, the public health association executive director, said it’s “not rocket science” for cities to figure out who their vulnerable populations are, and develop programs to check on them.

“Communicate with the same communities that your food programs have, or other social support programs, and senior citizen homes,” he said.

By 2050, Phoenix Will be Baghdad 

If there’s any place in the county that can serve as a heat laboratory for cities it’s Phoenix. On average, Phoenix has 110 days each year with a high temperature over 100 degrees, and 19 days with high temperatures exceeding 110 degrees, according to its new draft climate action plan. July and August 2020 were the hottest on record, and 2020 saw 53 days with temperatures over 110 degrees and 145 days over 100 degrees.

Last year, Maricopa County had 2,414 heat-related emergency room visits and more than 300 heat-related deaths. It is investigating 138 potential heat-related deaths so far this year.

Researchers from ETA Zurich have forecast that by 2050 the Phoenix climate will be more like that of Baghdad.

Phoenix faces “dire prospects” with its urban heat island and the changing climate, said Declet-Barreto, who lived there for 17 years and earned a Ph.D. in environmental social sciences from Arizona State University. 

“There are entire neighborhoods in Phoenix where there is just no vegetation at all,” he said. “It’s just all sorts of impervious surfaces, like cement and glass, and asphalt. Those are also the places where low income populations of color live.”

Eva O. Olivas, executive director and chief executive officer of the Phoenix Revitalization Corporation, a grassroots nonprofit working with underserved communities, agreed.

“To wait at the bus stop literally is a life threatening situation in our neighborhoods in the summertime,” she said. 

Still, both Olivas and Declet-Barreto give the city credit for taking heat problems seriously.

The City of Phoenix and the Maricopa County Association of Governments established a heat-relief network in 2005, following an extreme heat event that killed 35 people over nine days. The network coordinates emergency response to heat waves, including water distribution and cooling centers. Phoenix also requires landlords to supply reasonable cooling to rental housing units—air conditioners must keep homes to no warmer than 82 degrees, for example.

The city is now also updating its climate action plan with a strong heat component: new goals of creating a network of 30 cool corridors in vulnerable communities by 2030; increasing shade trees in neighborhood parks and along streets and sidewalks; and incorporating more reflective materials into surfaces and buildings.

The city this year also is establishing an “Office of Heat Response and Mitigation,” aimed at coordinating the city’s response to heat.

Budget constraints amid competing priorities can slow progress, said Karen Peters, deputy city manager.

But she added: “Dealing with and adapting to heat is essential to our long term viability, both our economic viability and being able to provide quality of life for our residents and visitors. So it’s essential.”

Phoenix and its neighbor, Tempe, are also working with ASU to develop a certification system for cities striving to tackle heat. They’re calling the program “HeatReady,” modeled somewhat after the National Weather Services’ StormReady program, to help cities better prepare for and respond to severe storms like tornadoes and blizzards.

The HeatReady program will be designed to help cities think through their heat problems and develop responses based on efforts tested in the Phoenix area, said Hondula, the ASU professor. The program will provide a framework for steps that can be taken, such as adding shade, cooling surfaces like roads, rooftops and parking lots, and adding water features, messaging and public education. 

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The partners are still working through questions of how demanding the requirements for certification will be, he said. “Is it really going to be a deep, sophisticated evaluation tool?” Or, he said, it could end up being something more or less based on “good faith and trusting that the pieces are in place.”

And New York Will Feel Like Birmingham 

New York City averages 10 deaths a year directly attributable to heat stress and 350 deaths a year from natural causes exacerbated by heat, according to the city’s health department.

The nation’s largest city, with 8.4 million people, experienced on average two heat waves per year from 1970 to 2000. With climate change, New York is bracing for an increase in the number of heat waves, with a tripling of the days when temperatures go over 90,  from a baseline of 18 between the years of 1971 and 2000, to 57 by 2050.

New York City will feel more like Birmingham, Alabama, said Jainey Bavishi, director of the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency.

With heat in mind, the city announced it was strengthening its heat adaptation work in 2017, through a new Cool Neighborhoods NYC program that pledged tens of millions toward tree planting and other initiatives, expanded a cool roof program and launched the “Be A Buddy” program targeting the most vulnerable areas.

The city worked with Columbia University to develop a risk index that ranks neighborhood vulnerability, taking into account factors such as density, lack of education, race and poverty, Bavishi said. “When you look at the heat vulnerability index, you can see that the neighborhoods that kind of light up as being the most vulnerable in the city are the South Bronx, Northern Manhattan and Central Brooklyn,” she said.

The city’s heat reduction program involves “physically retrofitting neighborhoods so we can bring temperatures down,” she said.

To help with heat emergencies, she said, home health aides are being trained in heat safety. “They can make sure that their patients are staying hydrated or getting access to a cool space if they need it,” Bavishi said.

The city also launched its buddy pilot program, working with neighborhood organizations like The Point, a nonprofit community development group operating in the industrial Hunts Point neighborhood of the South Bronx. As part of a larger heat mitigation effort, The Point helps distribute subsidized air conditioners and runs a program, a person-to-person outreach that seeks to prepare the community for climate events.

Many mayors ask their city’s residents to check on loved ones and neighbors during weather extremes. The New York City program takes that a step further, by training residents in how to help their neighbors navigate extreme weather. 

It’s “very preemptive,” said Danny Peralta, executive managing director of The Point. “This is like how all communities should kind of work at this point, if we’re gonna be able to save lives. And honestly, you know, be able to secure neighborhoods from the effects of climate, which is affecting everybody.”