Summer in the city: Engaging for epic heat

Thanks in part to the language of “global warming,” heat is one of those climate impacts that’s more intuitive than extreme blizzard conditions and less obscure than vector-borne disease. As temperatures around the world continue to rise, extreme heat events are becoming more frequent, lengthy and intense, putting people and communities at risk; in fact, heat waves are the leading cause of weather-related fatalities.

Continued warming affects everyone, especially seniors, children and low-income communities. How can climate leaders engage people around the threat of summer climate impacts and get them involved in efforts to prepare? We’ve gathered some examples of organizations that are leading this work through innovative partnerships and grassroots engagement.

In Baltimore, the B’More Cool network is monitoring the urban heat island effect and working to reduce extreme heat risks through community outreach and education. The network’s collaborative planning process is a model for other cities seeking to help residents steer investment toward solutions. Made up of disaster preparedness professionals, city officials, academics, urban designers and non-profit staff,  the network conducted door-to-door canvassing and hosted community workshops to get local input on how to improve the community’s response to heat events. This outreach generated several adaptive approaches, including planting street trees, building neighborhood parks and installing cool roofs.

In New York City, the Harlem Heat Project installed sensors in apartments without air conditioning to track indoor heat indexes. Founded by WE ACT for Environmental Justice, WNYC, AdaptNY and iSeeChange, the project is another example of a collaborative effort to address the heat risks impacting low-income communities and communities of color. While the city offers cooling centers, they’re often far from people’s daily routines and can be difficult to get to, especially on the hottest days when they’re needed most. The pilot project, a unique coalition between journalists and advocates, engaged local residents to serve as community-based citizen scientists or “ambassadors” to help collect data using a mobile app and provide input on potential solutions to build climate resilience. The project has proposed transforming public housing lobbies into convenient cooling spaces and planting rooftop gardens to provide access to fresh air.

In the San Diego/Tijuana region of Southern California, the Environmental Health Coalition is helping local residents address high-risk summer impacts including extreme heat waves, air pollution and more frequent wildfires. Guided by the community’s immediate concerns, like childhood asthma, the coalition has formed partnerships with local public health agencies to help educate residents about the connections between climate change and health impacts. Educational materials are produced for bilingual audiences and used to assess the heat stress risks for individual families, offer strategies for staying healthy during periods of extreme heat, and getting involved in the local climate action planning to address the root cause of the problem.

These are just a few examples of how diverse groups are working together to prepare cities for more frequent and severe heat waves, particularly targeting low-income neighborhoods and communities of color disproportionately impacted by extreme heat. These partnerships are putting residents at the center of the process through door canvassing, community meetings, neighborhood ambassadors, and accessible educational materials that catalyze community input and support.


Photo via (cc) Flickr user MTSOfan