Using nature to help low income neighborhoods adapt to extreme heat

The increasing intensity of summer heat waves has become a common national trend we have all experienced.  Whether you live in Seattle, Chicago, New York City, Memphis, Atlanta, Houston or Southern California, new heat wave records have become the norm.  And the recent Fourth National Climate Assessment suggests that this will only get worse over time.

Extreme heat is not just uncomfortable; it is also dangerous.  The Phoenix, Arizona region has been experiencing an average of 77 heat related deaths a year, with New York City averaging 100 such deaths.  The Climate Assessment suggests that staying comfortable and healthy under increasing heat is one of the most significant challenges of climate change for urban areas.  For many this will mean creating more shade, cranking up the air conditioning, and taking frequent trips to cooler places.  But for some residents of lower income urban neighborhoods these are not realistic options and that is a major concern for Maggie Messerschmidt of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) Arizona. 

Maggie leads TNC’s Nature’s Cooling Systems project funded through a 2017 $125,000 grant from the Vitalyst Health Foundation.  In addition to working with local health agencies to integrate heat-related science into health and heat-mitigation policy, TNC is helping vulnerable neighborhoods develop their own heat mitigation and adaptation plans, as in the Edison-Eastlake neighborhood in south Phoenix. 

In 2014 the Conservancy launched its North American Cities program which is focused on bringing the power and science of nature to help cities in the US solve urban issues.  This was a new direction for TNC which traditionally focused on using science to conserve non-urban natural areas.

Maggie was hired as the first Arizona staff member for TNC’s New Cities program.  She says, “I was looking for opportunities to use green infrastructure to solve pressing issues in disadvantaged communities and heat health and comfort was one issue that many people were talking about.”  And in 2016, she began to explore how TNC could address these heat issues among vulnerable populations in the Phoenix region which lead to the 2017 Vitalyst grant.

Developing the project from scratch had its challenges. “The program was brand new for TNC and people were not sure how seriously to take it, so I felt that I had to prove to our local leadership that the  Nature’s Cooling project was a solid first step for launching TNC’s local Cities program.”

Maggie had to reach out to local groups to document the issue of heat impact in urban areas and convince people that TNC “had work to do in the City and heat was a key issue.”  Maggie credits people from the City of Phoenix, like Mark Hartman, and Nancy Grimm from Arizona State University for helping her make a case of community need for the project.  Maggie also credits Pat Graham, State Director of TNC, for listening to her ideas and buying into the merit of the issue of heat in urban areas. 

“Once I had TNC leadership’s support I was able to pull together a local team from TNC, the Central Arizona Conservation Alliance, Arizona State University Urban Resilience to Extremes Sustainability Research Network, and Maricopa County Department of Public Health.”

Getting local groups to commit to the project was not easy at first.  “I found that if I talked about the project as an environmental justice project that turned a lot of people off, but I found they were all willing to talk about increasing heat and how to help people cope.”

The project is now underway and the project team is working with residents in the Edison-Eastlake neighborhood in south Phoenix.  Through a series of participatory workshops, the project team, which includes the Phoenix Revitalization Corporation and the City of Phoenix, has helped residents talk about the current impacts of heat on their families, learn about the future prospects for increasing heat, and brainstorm about actions they could take to mitigate heat in their neighborhood and adapt to increase their “heat comfort”.

Getting people to participate was initially challenging.  To encourage participation they offered $50 grocery gift cards which ended up overwhelming their expectations.  With a need to get a more focused long-term dedicated participation group, smaller neighborhood resident action teams were formed.  

The project team is now drafting action plans that they will review and revise with these smaller neighborhood action teams.  These plans include a wide range of actions, such as planting trees in strategic locations to help with cooling, building shade structures in public areas, neighbors checking in on vulnerable residents during heat waves, identifying neighborhood cooling places, and making public transit and the walk to transit stops more heat comfortable. Once the action teams take ownership of the plans, the project team will help them to begin implementing their actions on their own and working with local agencies.

Maggie thinks one of the projects successes has been “getting the city to understand that by getting out front of development there is an opportunity to design communities differently, so people can better cope and adapt to urban heat.”  She suggests that having a wide range of local groups focused on the issue created the critical mass for this success. “TNC could not have done this alone ; it was the event of having a wide range of different agencies bring attention to the issue that made the difference.” 

The City of Phoenix was recently awarded a $30 million grant from HUD to renovate an existing housing project in the neighborhood.  The Nature’s Cooling Systems team helped the City write the grant proposal which included several actions that came from the neighborhood planning process.  And an expanded team from TNC and Arizona State University is now working with the City to incorporate cooling design into the redevelopment project. Though Maggie has found the Nature’s Cooling Systems project to be exhausting it has also been fun and rewarding.  “I love the process of translating the research and knowledge that is out there  into application.  To do this with one of the most important issues of our time is just so exciting.”  Though she also said, “a vacation every so often helps with the exhausting part.”

meet the author

Research Professional, Decision Center for a Desert City a unit of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University. Researching on and engaging professionals in water resources, climate adaptation, and anticipatory planning issues. Formerly Assistant Director of Water Services and Assistant Director of Planning for City of Phoenix. He is a Fellow of the American Institute of Certified Planners and has authored numerous books, articles, and presentations on water and planning issues. Education: BS Baylor University, MS University of Texas, PhD ASU

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