Communities Step Up to Keep Neighbors Safe from Extreme Heat and COVID-19

Large, leafy trees are sparse in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook. On a sweltering Saturday afternoon in July, heat radiates from the asphalt. People walk the hot pavement fanning their masked faces or carrying umbrellas for shade.

But outside the local public library, a group of volunteer designers and staff from community organizations are building shade structures and benches to help the neighborhood beat the heat.

The volunteers are working on a project called “Cool Streets,” which aims to provide respite from intense heat through outdoor cooling strategies such as misting stations and shaded benches on certain streets in Red Hook. The project is a collaboration between the RETI (Resilience, Education, Training and Innovation) Center, an organization promoting climate adaptation strategies and economic development; Columbia University’s Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes; and a local organization called Resilient Red Hook. It’s unrelated to a Cool Streets initiative the city launched in July.

Where city cooling centers and heat warnings have fallen short, communities have stepped up.

Air conditioners and shaded outdoor spaces in New York City are in high demand this summer, after the pandemic closed most cooled public spaces in areas where many residents lack air conditioning at home, said Gita Nandan, the co-founder and board chair of the RETI Center. Nandan and other RETI Center staff were concerned that the pandemic could complicate the response to natural disasters such as storm surges in Red Hook, when this summer’s heat shifted their attention.

“We’re always focused on floods and hurricanes,” Nandan said. “But heat is maybe even more important to address because it’s a constant and it’s just going to keep happening every year.”

Communities across the country are facing the compounding crises of extreme heat and the coronavirus pandemic on top of racial and socioeconomic injustice. Cities that have opened cooling centers to blunt the economic and health impacts of heat on residents must also make sure that the people relying on them wear masks and maintain social distance. Many people who have lost their jobs, are working remotely, or have nowhere else to cool off have ratcheted up their electricity bills by staying home during the hottest parts of the day because of the pandemic. Some families have struggled to pay their energy bills to keep their air conditioners running. Libraries, malls, and swimming pools have remained closed in many states to avoid spreading the virus, closing off cooling sites that people without air conditioners would normally rely on. 

But where city cooling centers and heat warnings have fallen short, communities have stepped up efforts to keep their residents safe from both the heat and the pandemic, as more people head outside to cool off. And advocates for green infrastructure increasingly stress the need to design open-air spaces that mitigate the extreme heat brought on by climate change.

COVID-19 and Scorching Temperatures Sharpen Focus on Outdoor Spaces 

Many projects to lower the temperature in neighborhoods existed before COVID-19, but advocates say the pandemic has emphasized the need for cooler streets, sidewalks, playgrounds, and parks. In Los Angeles, an initiative called Cool Streets LA aims to lower temperatures and create shade in neighborhoods that suffer most from the heat. The initiative began as a pilot project in 2014 to apply light-colored coatings to the city’s pavement and has since expanded to other cooling methods such as tree canopies, hydration stations, and shaded benches near public transportation stops. 

Adel Hagekhalil, the executive director of StreetsLA, part of the city’s Department of Public Works, oversees the continuing initiative. He noticed the challenges of providing indoor protection from the heat and also saw more people wanting to spend time outside during the pandemic. 

“This is an opportunity for us to reimagine and recreate our future outdoor space,” Hagekhalil said. Green infrastructure has always been an important tool to lower the surface temperature in cities, but the combination of racial injustice, the pandemic, and rising temperatures because of climate change has underscored its importance, he said. 

“For me, cooling our community is at the heart of racial justice and equity,” Hagekhalil said. “The people most impacted by heat and lack of shade are the people who rely on either walking or using public transportation.” Providing outdoor respite from the heat when other indoor cooling options are restricted can be “the difference between us leaving our homes or staying home and not being able to do anything.”

Cooling our community is at the heart of racial justice and equity.

The trees and grass of parks can provide shade and a break from the heat radiated by concrete buildings and asphalt streets, but many people don’t live close to public green spaces. One hundred million Americans live more than a 10-minute walk from a park, according to the Trust for Public Land, an organization that helps communities across the country design and access public parks.

As climate change drives up temperatures, landscape architects are increasingly designing outdoor spaces with heat mitigation in mind, said Tamar Warburg, director of sustainability at Sasaki, an architecture and urban design firm based in Boston. Now, Warburg said, the pandemic is shifting designers’ attention toward easing and expanding access to shaded green spaces. 

“We are very focused on this effort right now, especially since COVID,” she said. “As we are trying to move shared activities outdoors, we are asking ‘How can we extend the outdoor thermal comfort season through design strategies that take on extreme heat?'”

Starting in April, the firm saw a rise in proposals from jurisdictions that were trying to rethink their open spaces, Warburg said. Architects and designers are considering how to allow for social distancing outside and are looking at ways to create more room for pedestrians on the streets. Sasaki has also used a strategy that involves linking parks together with shaded paths to create networks that allow people to commute on foot without being in the sun for too long.

“There’s a profound, renewed appreciation for the quality of public open spaces during this pandemic,” Warburg said. 

The Pandemic Hinders Access to Already Limited Urban Cooling Resources 

Amid an ongoing conversation about designing outdoor spaces to mitigate heat long-term, cities are struggling to address their residents’ more immediate cooling needs during an especially scorching summer. 

Both extreme heat and COVID-19 restrict people’s mobility and limit their capacity to use community resources that provide protection from the heat, said Joseph Holler, an assistant professor of geography at Middlebury College. Many factors influence a neighborhood’s vulnerability to heat, including crowded housing and lack of indoor cooling systems. And this summer, COVID-19 is leaving many people afraid or unable to leave their homes to access resources like cooling centers, Holler added.  

Many cities only activate such centers when the temperature hits a certain threshold and stays there for a few days. New York City’s cooling centers, for example, are activated on days that the heat index is forecast to reach 100 degrees, or 95 degrees over consecutive days. 

Jackson Chabot, one of the Cool Streets volunteers, worries about the lack of options to cool off on days when the heat is intense but doesn’t reach that threshold. 

“While the 90 degree heat last week and this week might not trigger the heat advisory, it doesn’t mean that it’s not hot,” Chabot said in late July. 

And people who do not live within walking distance of a cooling center could struggle to get there during the heat of the day, he said. 

Other cities have been slow to activate cooling centers. Austin opened none in July, despite temperatures around 100 degrees, and a “real feel” that was even hotter, partly because of the high humidity. In early August it opened one cooling center for seniors, and was discussing opening more for the general public, according to a spokeswoman for Austin Public Health. 

Emergency management departments across the country have been working to advise residents on what to do during a heat emergency, while also communicating rules about social distancing when sheltering in public places from sweltering temperatures. 

Mutual Aid Groups Work to Fill the Gap

While emergency management departments adjust their extreme heat strategies in the face of the pandemic, community groups are working to fill the gaps in government agencies’ reach. 

In Texas, a group called Austin Mutual Aid has been raising money to provide water at encampments for unhoused people who are suffering through the extreme heat. By Aug. 3, the group had raised more than $16,000 to finance the effort through a GoFundMe page.

“A nearby soup kitchen can only give out a tiny bottle of water. It’s not sufficient for someone who is out all day and night in the heat,” said Rebecca Steingut, a volunteer. “This is, in very real terms, a life or death issue.”

One mutual aid group that serves the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Clinton Hill and Fort Greene has delivered and installed donated air conditioners in the homes of residents in need. Many of the requests for air conditioners have come from tenants in the nearby public housing complex. 

“The buildings are so hot but residents are trying their best with what they have,” said Tim Donnelly, a volunteer with the group. Some residents needed help turning off their radiators, repairing their air conditioners, or pulling the bars off their windows to install them, he said.

The process of matching and delivering air conditioners through mutual aid can be helpful for people who are ineligible for the city’s cooling assistance program, said Andy McCarthy, another volunteer. “There’s no red tape,” he said.

In Red Hook, extreme heat is especially dangerous for seniors, many of whom have not left their apartments often because of the dual threats of COVID-19 and the heat, said Karen Blondel, a longtime resident and environmental justice organizer at Fifth Avenue Committee, a community organization in South Brooklyn. 

Blondel, who has long advocated for a resiliency plan for the waterfront neighborhood, thinks an initiative like Cool Streets can help.

“At the minimum you have to have shade,” she said. “If I have to go five urban heat blocks to get to cooling, then I’m staying inside.” 

This story originally appeared in InsideClimate News and is republished here with permission. InsideClimate News is a nonprofit, independent news organization that covers climate, energy, and the environment. Sign up for the ICN newsletter here.

Maddie Kornfeld is a summer intern at InsideClimate News. She is currently pursuing her master's degree at the Newmark School of Journalism in New York City, where she focuses on climate change reporting and investigative reporting. When Covid-19 hit New York, she joined a group of fellow Newmark students to develop and run a news site dedicated to local coverage of the pandemic. Her writing for the site mainly focused on the intersection of the pandemic and the environment.
Anna Belle is a New York City-based videographer and producer for InsideClimate News. Before joining ICN, she worked on projects ranging from an exposé with Bill Moyers to PBS FRONTLINE investigations. She has filmed and produced for the New York Times and Al Jazeera English, among others. She has her master's from UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.