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U.S. infrastructure bill aims to cool heat inequity in cities

by David Sherfinski | @dsherfinski | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 19 August 2021 17:30 GMT

Community Outreach Volunteer Rahn Kenebrew sits near a mist station with a wet towel on his head, outside the "Right 2 Dream Too" encampment, as a heat wave continues in Portland, Oregon, U.S. August 12, 2021. REUTERS/Mathieu Lewis-Rolland

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A new program tucked into the legislation aims to tackle inequalities in urban areas where the effects of extreme temperatures can depend on one's zip code

- New program aims to mitigate 'heat islands' in low-income areas

- Greening efforts often leave out most vulnerable

- Baltimore's poor would reap benefits from 'smart surfaces' push

 - When Rev. William H. Lamar IV used to preach in Florida, he would take his predominantly Black congregation outside to publicly display the church's connection to the community – until it became a health risk because of worsening heat.

“It was better to stay inside and be a little less hot than to go outside and be blazing and have no cover,” recalled Lamar, now pastor of the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.

That contrasted with Lamar's tours of “wealthier, whiter” neighborhoods where he found people jogging beneath the shade of lush trees and frequenting parks and other green spaces.

“Our infrastructure continues to create these inequities that give more to the wealthy ... and continue to extract in life and treasure from other communities,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The $1.2-trillion, 2,702-page infrastructure bill moving through the U.S. Congress - which was passed by the Senate last week - aims to help redress such imbalances.

It contains a new "Healthy Streets" program geared toward communities that are frequently left behind in efforts to mitigate so-called "urban heat islands", where concrete-heavy city landscapes push up temperatures.

The legislation allows states and local governments to apply for grants of up to $15 million to deploy "cool" and porous pavements, which reflect heat and facilitate water runoff, and boost the tree canopy in disadvantaged areas, among other measures.

“It’s a good beginning, but it’s nowhere near everything we need," Lamar said, expressing hope that the "federal largesse" could help spur more action by local governments.


Efforts have been underway for some time in cities to reduce the effects of rising heat fueled by climate change.

In California, new buildings must comply with strict "cool" or reflective roof requirements, while San Francisco demands that most set aside part of their roof space for solar panels or "green" features like vegetation and gardens - which can also help buildings in other cities meet energy efficiency standards.

Los Angeles famously started painting some of its streets white years ago in a bid to reflect the heat.

But neighborhoods that get upgrades to boost their resilience to a hotter climate can end up crowding out the poor as their popularity rises – a process known as “climate gentrification” – while many beneficiaries already live in higher-income areas insulated from the worst effects.

About 18% of the tree canopy in Los Angeles is concentrated in four neighborhoods - the tony Pacific Palisades and Brentwood areas, along with Shadow Hills and Los Feliz - that are home to less than 1% of the city’s population, according to CAPA Strategies, a data analytics group.

And all too frequently a community is supposedly "improved" only to see speculators swoop in and drive up rents and property values, said Anthony Rogers-Wright with the nonprofit New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.

“Then people are either forced to move because they can’t afford new property taxes or they can’t afford the rents anymore," he said. "The road to bad policy is paved with good intentions."

A member of the Neighborhood Emergency Team tests a misting station as a heat wave continues in Portland, Oregon, U.S., August 12, 2021. REUTERS/Mathieu Lewis-Rolland


The "Healthy Streets" program in the infrastructure bill aims to avoid this by requiring applicants to specify how the projects will benefit disadvantaged and low-income communities, where at least 30% of residents live below the poverty line.

Local governments that are awarded the funds can also use them to conduct “equity" assessments by mapping tree canopy gaps, flood-prone locations, heat island hot-spots, and the extent to which those risks overlap with lower-income areas.

“You can overcome many generations of structural inequality, including racial inequality ... through investing in lower-income areas and moving from dark, impervious surfaces to reflective surfaces,” said Greg Kats, founder and CEO of the Smart Surfaces Coalition, which advocates for such technologies.

Baltimore, Maryland would see a significant return on investment with a citywide plan involving cool roofs, solar panel installations, reflective pavements and more trees, according to a report Kats' group released last month.

A $5-million investment in Madison-Eastend, a lower-income neighborhood of east Baltimore, would generate a higher than 11-to-1 return through effects like job creation, it projected.

Smart surface policies would reduce peak summer temperatures there by an average of 8.3 degrees Fahrenheit, compared to a 4.3F reduction overall in central city areas, the report found.

Low-income residents also stood to reap a greater share of the resulting health benefits from lower air pollution, energy savings on less air conditioning and new jobs, it added.

Baltimore City Councilman Mark Conway said the report showed that broad adoption of smart surfaces would help "redress longstanding environmental injustice".


The new program presents an opportunity to take small steps forward amid broader calls from environmental justice advocates for at least $1 trillion in annual federal spending to combat climate change.

“This is a potential panacea moment if we do it correctly and intentionally," said Rogers-Wright, environmental justice director for the New York lawyers group.

“We have to make sure that these improvements are done with the buy-in of the community," he added.

Additional funding for studies to work out where to steer new projects, given the expense of major retrofits, would be welcome, said Saleem Chapman, chief resilience officer for the city of Philadelphia.

It has been working on a pilot to coat streets with coolants in a bid to tackle what can amount to a 22F peak temperature difference between neighborhoods.

“It’s going to be really hard to scale these projects – we’ve spent two years and we’re probably going to do maybe a mile of actual roadway,” said Chapman.

Rev. Lamar said advocates would need to push the case for more smart surfaces - and tailor their pitches to focus on the expected cost savings and financial gains if necessary.

"History bears this out - that America is more moved by economics than it is by justice," he said.

Read more:

Extreme heat – an "unseen threat" – burns U.S. urban poor

U.S. cities offer displaced Black families the 'right to return'

New city 'heat officers' take aim at climate change's 'silent killer'

(Reporting by David Sherfinski. Editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.