Urban Wire Addressing Extreme Heat Will Require an Intentional Focus on Equity
Jorge Morales-Burnett, Rebecca Marx
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Gina Jackson and her son, Kayden

Extreme heat is the deadliest weather-related hazard in the United States—a fact that historically has gone underrecognized. Experts consider heat a silent killer, resulting in more than 600 deaths per year as well as illnesses like respiratory difficulties and heat stroke. Heat also has negative implications for the economy, the environment, and infrastructure.

And the threat is growing. Climate change has raised average temperatures and the frequency, intensity, and duration of extreme heat events. And as cities continue to grow, heat is increasingly an urban problem (PDF), with more people exposed to the urban heat island effect—a phenomenon in which urbanized areas experience higher temperatures than surrounding regions because of building density, heat-absorbing materials such as concrete, and limited vegetation.

Heat’s life-threatening effects are not felt equally. The legacy of racist housing policies and historic disinvestment in neighborhoods with low incomes and communities of color make these neighborhoods more likely to be hotter and less likely to have access to resources to cope with extreme temperatures.

Because of these disparities, extreme heat cannot be addressed without prioritizing equity. Drawing on conversations with government officials, academics, and climate-focused funders, as well as a review of scholarly literature, news media, and city planning documents, our recent brief offers recommendations on how local governments can center equity in extreme heat programs and policies.

Three workstreams local governments are pursuing to address extreme heat

We drew our lessons from communities in the US taking decisive actions to address extreme heat. Miami-Dade County appointed the world’s first chief heat officer to assess the county’s vulnerabilities and develop a framework for countywide heat strategies. The City of Phoenix established the Office of Heat Response and Mitigation to develop a strategic action plan to address extreme heat. And smaller cities and towns like Clarksville and Richmond in Indiana have assigned heat coordinators as part of their statewide Beat the Heat program. Many other cities are undertaking urban heat island mapping campaigns to understand their communities’ vulnerabilities using funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Overall, local governments are pursuing actions that can be categorized into three workstreams:

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Assessing community vulnerabilities: To understand where temperatures will be highest and how vulnerable community members will be affected, communities are mapping heat and community vulnerabilities to inform decisions about which neighborhoods to target for interventions.

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Building emergency preparedness capacity: To respond to deadly heat emergencies, cities are building public awareness of heat risks. Strategies include providing readily available cooling, such as cooling centers, fans, and water; establishing warning systems to alert the public about excessive heat events; and offering assistance to cover electricity costs during heat emergencies.

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Adapting to and mitigating extreme heat: To reduce urban heat island effects, cities are designing housing, neighborhoods, and infrastructure in more responsive ways. Some urban planning and design strategies include zoning reforms, tree ordinances, siting of cooling resources, and building and infrastructure design that uses fewer heat-absorbing materials.


Four dimensions of equity to evaluate in extreme heat strategies

To ensure extreme heat solutions like these are targeted to the most-affected areas, we recommend policymakers consider four evaluative dimensions of equity: recognitional, reparative, procedural, and distributive equity.

  • Recognitional equity acknowledges past policies and discrimination that have contributed to current disparities. Policies like redlining have led to less tree coverage and limited access to cooling resources in many neighborhoods. Recognitional equity also involves understanding the different experiences of community members most affected by heat and developing solutions responsive to their perspectives. One community solicited residents’ views about emergency preparedness resources and found some outdoor workers were not receptive to being described as “vulnerable populations.” Other community members expressed concerns about feeling unsafe or unwelcome at public cooling centers.
  • Reparative equity (PDF) includes an intent to explicitly benefit a specific group. It can involve identifying the most affected or historically marginalized populations to target for community engagement efforts and policy interventions. Clarksville and Richmond targeted populations that face the highest threat from extreme heat, including outdoor workers, senior residents, caregivers of children, Hispanic and Latino community members, and residents of manufactured housing.
  • Procedural equity (PDF) entails a commitment to community members for meaningful, transparent public engagement and involvement in decisionmaking processes. Procedural equity can involve creating oversight bodies, such as task forces or advisory groups representative of the community. Miami-Dade County developed a climate and heat health task force composed of nonprofit stakeholders and residents with experience living through extreme heat events.
  • Distributive equity requires that the benefits and harms from projects or policies are distributed fairly. Distributive equity can involve planning for cooling centers, water access, shade structures, or tree planting initiatives that provide equal access to communities with low incomes or historically underserved neighborhoods. The City of Boston collected data on every street tree in the city—location, species, and condition—to ensure its Urban Forest Plan to increase urban tree canopy would benefit all its nearly 700,000 residents, including those in neighborhoods with a clear legacy of redlining and extreme heat.

As just one of many consequences of climate change, extreme heat competes with other challenges for adaptation and mitigation funding, and it will be difficult to address without enhancing local government capacity for coordinated climate response. Currently, extreme heat is rarely included in local hazard mitigation plans, which limits local governments’ ability to mobilize funding during heat-related emergencies.

The climate has already changed, and this shift disproportionately affects communities of color and people with low incomes. Only by prioritizing equity in extreme heat and broader adaptation and mitigation planning will communities be prepared for a hotter future.

The Urban Institute has the evidence to show what it will take to create a society where everyone has a fair shot at achieving their vision of success.

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Research Areas Climate, disasters, and environment
Tags Climate mitigation, sustainability, energy and land use
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center
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