On average, New York City sees more than 100 deaths from heat waves every year. In the US, heat is the leading cause of death due to extreme weather—more than floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes combined. The combination of a pandemic and extreme heat this summer is a perfect storm, as major economic losses and high unemployment rates make it hard to afford energy bills for cooling, high-risk groups face additional health concerns, and communities and families experience devastating personal losses. Social distancing further complicates the city’s ability to provide centralized cooling locations during heatwaves, which are defined as 3 or more consecutive days with temperatures over 90 °F.
If we want to build a healthier city, we can start by designing for warmer weather.
Last year, we joined 23 other emerging leaders in design, engineering, and community planning to investigate solutions to mitigate the impact of extreme heat on vulnerable New Yorkers through the Urban Design Forum’s Forefront Fellowship. We interviewed nearly 40 experts and visited five neighborhoods that are among the highest-scoring on the city’s Heat Vulnerability Index, which maps neighborhoods at greatest risk of heat-related illness or death. Our research was driven by the inequitable impacts of extreme heat on Black and Latino (of any race) communities, and culminated in 30 recommendations relating to design, policy, finance, and community resiliency.
According to official statistics, about half of the heat deaths in New York City from a 12-year period (between 2000 and 2012) were non-hispanic Black people, and there is still higher heat vulnerability in heavily minority neighborhoods. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, we are seeing an emerging parallel between environmental justice communities most vulnerable to extreme heat and the impacts of COVID-19, with Black/African-American and Latino people being more than twice as likely to die from the virus. The Heat Vulnerability Index shows significant overlap with COVID-19 case maps and historic redlining maps, underscoring the enduring impact of systemic racism on communities of color.
To deal with these intertwined problems this summer, the city is implementing a program to distribute 74,000 air conditioning units to vulnerable populations, along with providing financial assistance for the higher electricity costs of running an AC unit. The city will also provide outdoor misting, hydrants, and more spacious cooling centers to encourage social distancing. These initiatives will provide lifesaving relief for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, and the air conditioning program in particular is a strong incentive to stay indoors.
These strategies provide effective relief for the short-term, but must be paired with longer-term strategies that drive systemic change. Future heat waves will become more dangerous, with some projections predicting that we may see an increase in the number of extremely hot days in the decades to come. AC units have significant drawbacks as a long-term measure because they can worsen the urban heat island effect. Additional low-carbon strategies can provide further immediate relief, and a comprehensive long-term approach can help minimize future deaths from extreme heat.
Fortunately, we can prepare for the worst heat waves through design and policies that work together to lower the temperature experienced by New Yorkers in every neighborhood.
First, we can make an immediate impact by installing shade structures in highly heat-vulnerable neighborhoods. While shade structures are not a new idea, the city could lead design competitions for low-cost shade structures that can be disassembled in the offseason, partnerships with community-based organizations to design cool-down pop-up shade installations during heat events, and public artwork with shade components. These solutions should be built in neighborhoods that rank highest on the Heat Vulnerability Index, which are mostly low-income communities with residents who are predominantly people of color, including Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bushwick, and Brownsville in Brooklyn; Belmont and East Tremont, Morrisania, and Highbridge in the Bronx; and Central Harlem in Upper Manhattan.
Next, we can immediately deploy better communications strategies to convey the risks of extreme heat. The city should sponsor a refresh of photo stock that more accurately depicts the risk of extreme heat. Although heat waves are typically depicted in the media with beach photos, people inside homes without air conditioning, where indoor temperatures are often hotter than outdoor temperatures during and after heat waves, are actually at greatest risk. The city should also include more information on heat wave warnings and heat risks in the NotifyNYC messaging service, such as additional alerts, information about mitigation strategies, and access to resources for users who fall into high-risk categories for heat-related illness. Together, these strategies should help enable a behavior shift, particularly among at-risk populations.
The city should also expand its Open Streets and Cool Streets programs: temporarily closing select streets to traffic, adding bike lanes, and a spray cap program for hydrants. The city should move to make these changes permanent by converting the Open Streets to cool corridors within the public right-of-ways by adding trees, rain gardens, and large planting strips to protect bike lanes. NYCHA campuses would be ideal locations to pilot this approach, since their surrounding streets are often multi-lane thoroughfares without greenery or shade, and residents who rely on walking to nearby grocery stores, community centers, or transit hubs are subject to excessive heat.
We can also make AC units more effective in the long term by investing in more effective building insulation so that the cool air does not escape. Currently, only commercial building owners in New York can access Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) funding, which provides financing for energy efficiency projects and enables building owners to pay back the loan through the building’s tax bill. The city should start working with the New York City Energy Efficiency Corporation (NYCEEC) to enable residential PACE funding to help seal leaky building envelopes in single-family homes and apartment buildings.
Lastly, we recommend the city explore a range of policy changes to keep residents safe from extreme heat. While Local Law 86 mandates a minimum indoor temperature in the winter, the city should also set a maximum allowable indoor temperature in the summer. To reduce the urban heat island effect, the city should consider allowing variances for interior building insulation, specifying shading requirements in zoning ordinances, and including green infrastructure requirements in routine streetscape upgrades.
The current pandemic has heightened the challenge of extreme heat, as typical resources like cooling centers and pools need to be adapted and may remain closed. Global warming is not just a problem for the future, but one that is impacting New York City now and the cost of inaction is too great to ignore. The opportunity for change is here and we must act now with comprehensive, actionable, and creative strategies to mitigate the impact of extreme heat for all.
Mike Harrington is an Assistant Director at The Tishman Environment and Design Center at The New School. Mallory Taub is an Associate and sustainable design specialist at Gensler in New York.