On September 7th, 2022, A Better City (ABC) co-hosted an extreme heat virtual panel event with the Boston Green Ribbon Commission (GRC), highlighting Boston’s 2022 Heat Plan alongside case studies of businesses addressing extreme heat in partnership with local communities. The panelists included: Zoe Davis (City of Boston), Rev. Vernon Walker (Communities Responding to Extreme Weather), Dr. Megan Sandel (Boston Medical Center), Dr. Patricia Fabian (Boston University/C-HEAT project), and Bianca Bowman (GreenRoots/C-HEAT project). The event Q+A was moderated by David Sittenfeld from the Museum of Science, who led the Wicked Hot Boston initiative and the subsequent Wicked Hot Mystic initiative.
Representing the City of Boston’s Climate Ready Boston team, Climate Resilience Project Manager Zoe Davis presented some of the key findings from Heat Resilience Solutions for Boston (the Heat Plan), and spoke to how the Heat Plan continues the work of Climate Ready Boston to contribute to a more holistic approach to climate resilience in the City. We heard how heat is becoming an increasing threat to the City of Boston, with Boston projected to experience over 60 days above 90 degrees each year by 2070. We also heard how formerly redlined communities like the environmental justice case study neighborhoods featured in the Heat Plan suffer disproportionate heat threat, with compounding vulnerabilities and climate risks that place residents at much greater risk than surrounding communities. In presenting the City’s framework for addressing heat solutions, Zoe highlighted the 25 citywide heat resilience strategies offered by the City’s Heat Plan, and explained how these strategies would help to prepare Boston for hotter summers, with particular focus on protecting environmental justice neighborhoods. Zoe also offered suggestions for how businesses can become involved in preparing people, buildings, infrastructure, and the public realm to withstand more frequent and more intense heat emergency events.
Communities Responding to Extreme Weather (CREW)’s Program Director, Reverend Vernon Walker, highlighted CREW’s grassroots efforts to build equitable, inclusive neighborhood climate resilience and emphasized the importance of community engagement and education around extreme heat. Rev. Walker emphasized the impacts of heat as the #1 killer of all weather-related climate risks, and reminded attendees of the detrimental mental health impacts of heat and extreme weather events in addition to threats to physical health and community survival. As Rev. Walker highlighted, our most vulnerable communities at risk from heat-related illness or death are also communities of color that have compounding effects of structural racism, disproportionate levels of air pollution, and asthma, among other threats. Through CREW’s model of community resilience hubs and heat resilience events grounded in community spaces, Rev. Walker highlighted their work bringing air conditioners, cooling kits, and other heat resilience resources to environmental justice communities, in partnership with physicians from healthcare institutions like Mass General Hospital and Boston Medical Center.
From Boston Medical Center (BMC), Dr. Megan Sandel spoke to how New England’s premier safety net hospital is addressing the effects of extreme heat on their patient populations, largely through the lens of energy insecurity. Dr. Sandel highlighted energy security as a foundational need for patients to thrive, and discussed BMC’s additional efforts to promote upstream solutions to energy reduction as a healthcare system. In order to promote health equity through screening, systems, and policy work, BMC uses a THRIVE screening tool to engage patients, asking if they want help connecting to resources and immediate assistance like housing, food, utilities, transportation, and other insecurities, which all contribute to greater heat vulnerability. Beyond patient-to-physician interactions, BMC has also been a leading healthcare institution in reducing energy use, with a goal to become carbon-neutral by 2030 (96% complete as of 2022) that includes a partnership with MIT to invest in a 650-acre solar farm. BMC also has the first hospital-based rooftop farm, which doubles as a green roof and provides fresh, organic food to food insecure patients. Finally, Dr. Sandel also highlighted BMC’s efforts to support community resilience through local food sourcing, place-based investing in BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) wealth creation, and local job development.
Finally, from the C-HEAT team (also known as the Chelsea/East Boston Heat Study), we had Bianca Bowman, Climate Justice Organizer from GreenRoots (a local environmental justice and public health organization based in Chelsea, MA), and Dr. Patricia Fabian, Associate Director of Boston University’s Institute of Global Sustainability, who is also one of the Co-Lead Principal Investigators of the C-HEAT project. The C-HEAT project, a partnership between GreenRoots and environmental health researchers at Boston University, is prioritizing mitigating urban heat in low-income immigrant communities in Chelsea and East Boston, MA, and is pursuing community-led heat mapping alongside a “cool block” initiative, seeking to implement a series of heat interventions in one of Chelsea’s hottest city blocks. With Chelsea’s city average of 80% impervious surfaces, 4% public green space, and only 2% tree canopy, these environmental justice communities are on the frontline of severe heat vulnerability. Through the “cool block” initiative, C-HEAT is working with local residents and the City of Chelsea to install white roofs, cool pavement, new street trees, and other heat interventions. Indicative of C-HEAT’s leadership grounded in community, this project demonstrates the transformative nature of new green spaces and cooling-focused parks, when done in an intergenerational and community-led design process. In addition to offering employment opportunities to residents interested in helping to care for ongoing tree stewardship and maintenance, the project also includes a publicly-accessible data dashboard illustrating uptake of air conditioners, central air, and heat pumps across the study’s neighborhoods. Currently, C-HEAT is looking to: quantify the impact of cooling strategies like white roofs, trees, and cool pavement on local temperatures and neighborhood heat islands; to investigate barriers to participation in decarbonization and weatherization programs; to compile state and federal policies to adapt to extreme heat, and; to characterize occupational heat exposures.
Moderated Q+A Discussion
David Sittenfeld, Manager of the Current Science Communications Group from the Museum of Science moderated an active Q+A discussion. In response to a question about why it is important for communities and businesses in Greater Boston to prepare for extreme heat, Rev. Walker emphasized the need to prepare people for heat becoming a part of everyday life, and that it will be important to partner with communities already doing other justice work to share extreme weather best practices with them and promote environmental justice neighborhood community health screenings. Zoe added that addressing heat will require a cultural shift, to incorporate heat resilience across all city agencies and neighborhoods and to amplify heat preparedness through public health and emergency management efforts already underway. In order to implement the Heat Plan and forthcoming Urban Forest Plan, Boston will need a cultural shift towards a holistic climate resilience approach that also addresses heat alongside coastal flooding and sea level rise.
David emphasized the impact that extreme heat can have on individual businesses, as well as commerce across the city – by threatening critical infrastructure (e.g. cables melting, highways buckling, and airport tarmacs melting from heat in the Pacific North West), the built environment, as well as the employees and neighborhoods that our businesses depend on. When asked what it would mean for the private sector to plan for these challenges, Dr. Sandel encouraged the audience to ask which people we are targeting and placing at the center of our efforts in heat resilience – we need to think about system-wide and citywide approaches to heat across the business community, as a collective call to action. In discussing how businesses can become involved in addressing vulnerabilities and providing solutions that activate and build upon local community knowledge, Dr. Fabian suggested coordinated efforts around sourcing for white roofs, energy efficient appliances, and shade structures throughout the business community and in partnership with the City. Bianca also emphasized the critical nature of collaborating with community-based organizations and community leaders to help ensure the health of the local community alongside the longevity of businesses remaining in the community. In addition to the City pursuing pilot projects for heat relief at public libraries, Dr. Fabian and Zoe emphasized the importance of providing cooling relief in places where people already work, live, and play.
Then, David asked how we can promote the implementation of heat resilience strategies that respond to community needs, while also maintaining affordability and diversity in the neighborhood (without contributing to displacement). Bianca highlighted opportunities to more effectively maximize benefits from Mass Save in low-income environmental justice communities, to partner with community land trusts, and to pair extreme heat and affordability efforts like rent control, which will be vital in enabling residents to stay in their community while also becoming more prepared and protected in the face of extreme heat. Since trees take a long time to grow and require extensive maintenance, engaging community residents to adopt trees and paying residents to help water them like in the C-HEAT project, will also help to increase the success of tree planting efforts.
Finally, David wrapped the Q+A discussion by asking panelists what one thing is that we should do as a society to address heat and how it connects to social determinants of health. Rev. Walker mentioned that we need to be intentional about creating safe and welcoming places of refuge and heat relief for community members, and Zoe emphasized the importance of amplifying heat resilience information and resources to help folks stay cool. Dr. Sandel highlighted the importance of mapping the ecosystem of heat vulnerability and risks in data, and that businesses can do more to show up in “doing their part” for protecting communities. Dr. Fabian emphasized that decarbonization investments made to comply with net zero targets can also combat heat and improve heat resilience, and Bianca added that heat solutions already exist and can be scaled up across our most vulnerable neighborhoods. She also said businesses can be part of the solution if they can learn to work in and with our most vulnerable communities, in partnership with community-based organizations and leaders.
A recording of the extreme heat panel event can be found here and the slides can be found here. A Better City is in the process of developing a heat primer for the business community alongside a set of case studies highlighting businesses that are supporting community heat resilience in Greater Boston. We will form a heat resilience working group to help develop policies for improved heat resilience at a regional scale, and pursue pilot projects for heat resilience with ABC members, done in partnership with local community-based organizations.
For anyone interested in becoming involved with A Better City’s extreme heat work, please contact Isabella Gambill.