Combating the urban heat island impact through community engagement

About the UHI

Urban areas create novel conditions for humans and wildlife by modifying the local climate; one example that is becoming more prominent is the Urban Heat Island (UHI) Effect, as we saw in the 2021 heat domes in BC. The UHI effect occurs in cities as buildings and paved surfaces trap heat more effectively than natural landscapes. Moreover, cities produce their own heat from sources such as vehicles (Urban Heat Island Effect, n.d.). The heat stress exacerbated by climate change and the UHI effect poses a risk to public health with higher mortality rates, heat strokes, dehydration, labor and learning productivity loss (Hsu et al., 2021).

How it causes environmental injustice

The heat exposure from UHI, similar to other climate change impacts, are unequally distributed among populations, causing heightening environmental injustice. Studies show that people of color and low income households live in higher surface urban heat island areas, which means that they are more exposed to the negative health implication of heat stress. This inequality is correlated to the prevalence of or access to green spaces in a neighborhood. Trees can reduce summertime afternoon temperatures by 1.5 °C, but this and the many other benefit greenspaces provided is linked to increased housing costs and property values (Hsu et al., 2021). Moreover, historical practices of planning policies, urban development, and real estate have also promoted racial and spatial segregation in US and Canadian cities, which may explain the lower access to greenspace for people of color even in the same income group (Hsu et al., 2021;  Springer, 2021).

Mitigation Strategies: Equity and Inclusivity Integrated in Planning 

To mitigate the UHI effect, increasing green spaces and reducing greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution play a big role. However, this needs to be done in an equitable manner. When planning for greening initiatives for climate change mitigation, many cities do not consider the spatial location of equity-deserving groups and the correlation of these groups with higher temperature exposure. Furthermore, even when greening initiatives are implemented in low-income neighborhoods and minority neighborhoods, green gentrification can occur, which is the phenomenon of increased housing prices caused by green initiatives displacing minority and low-income residents (Hsu et al., 2021).

Thus, to prevent and even resolve these inequalities, coproduction, which is involving citizens in the process of planning and producing knowledge, is essential to develop environmental policies that are tailored for everyone’s needs (Hsu et al., 2021). When carrying out UHI effect mitigation and adaptation, there are 3 pillars that could lead to inclusive climate action.

  1. Process: This would involve the engagement of under-represented groups, including BIPOC and low-income groups, in setting visions, in addition to analyzing, mapping, and designing strategies and policies. 
  2. Policy: Policy would need to integrate maximizing equity and avoiding unintended inequities. This could look like setting climate equity targets. 
  3. Benefits/Impact Assessment: Measuring the impacts and their distribution of the climate action taken can help assess the health and economic benefit of cooling actions (Urban Heat and Equity, 2021). 

How to Take Action?

While the 3 pillars mentioned above focus on action municipalities need to take, we as individuals can take action to support climate action to combat the UHI effect and the inequities embedded! Individual action to reduce waste and pollution is helpful to prevent accelerating extreme weather events, but here we will focus on how to put out our voices for our cities and planners to create a more sustainable and equitable environment that can help us all mitigate and adapt to the UHI effect.

  • Partake in Surveys or Focus Groups: Many planning initiatives utilize community surveys or small  gatherings of community stakeholders to collect insights about the community’s conditions and what community members are happy about or would like to change in the future.
  • Attend Public Meetings: Public meetings play a crucial role in the planning process. You can also gain knowledge about your community, information about potential aspects of a proposed plan, and share your own feedback and ideas.
  • Take Part in a Planning Workshop: Planning workshops support deep involvement and active engagements of community stakeholders during the process of creating a local plan. These workshops are typically conducted over the course of several days and utilize the ideas and feedback shared by stakeholders to assist in the planning and design of the vision of a neighborhood.
  • Participate as an Advisory Committee: A number of community planning initiatives establish advisory committees consisting of local residents and other stakeholders like business owners or property holders. Typically, these committees offer guidance and advice that contributes to the comprehensive planning process, enhancing the professional urban planners' understanding of the community’s needs (Shape Your City, 2012).

To learn more & teach about Public Health, check out our Action Pack on the topic here.

To learn more about Environmental Justice, check out our Action Pack on the topic here.


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