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8 Ways NYC Can Help Vulnerable Communities Survive Summer Heat

With contributions by Robbie M. Parks, Jacqueline Klopp and Palak Srivastava

As extreme heat becomes an increasingly frequent threat, it is critical the City of New York take bolder action to ensure frontline communities stay safe and cool during the summer heat season. With the more frequent occurrence of global crises like the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change-induced extreme weather events, the City must prioritize addressing the cascading health risks these crises pose for New York City’s most vulnerable populations.

We are part of a team that recently found that in the summer of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic and extreme heat combined to exacerbate health risks for low-income communities of color. Our results have just been published in the Journal of Extreme Events, and our team is made up of researchers from the Earth Institute at Columbia University and experts from the environmental justice group WE ACT. Below, we share some of our findings and suggestions for how the City can better protect vulnerable communities during the hot weather to come.

COVID, Inequality, and Extreme Heat: A Deadly Combination

Extreme heat is the number one weather-related killer in the United States and New York City. According to a 2016 study, an average of 130 New Yorkers die from heat-related causes every year. The urban heat island effect, where urban environments experience higher surface and air temperatures than rural and suburban areas, exacerbates the impacts of extreme heat events and makes people in cities such as New York City particularly at high risk of adverse health outcomes. Due to the urban heat island effect, cities can be as much as 22°F (12°C) hotter than surrounding areas. Beyond the urban heat island effect, structural social factors and historical policies, such as racist redlining and zoning practices, have led to widespread disinvestment in infrastructure and contributed to elevated temperature exposure in low-income communities of color. Formerly redlined areas can have land surface temperatures as much as 12°F (7°C) hotter than non-redlined areas.

NYC heat vulnerability index map

Extreme heat poses deadly risks for low-income communities of color in New York City. In particular, Northern Manhattan and the South Bronx are two of the most heat-vulnerable neighborhoods in the city. Extreme heat disproportionately impacts the city’s Black communities, with Black New Yorkers accounting for 50% of heat-related deaths in NYC between 2000 and 2012 even though they only make up 25% of the population. One of the most prevalent factors that increase heat-related health risks for seniors and low-income people of color is their unequal access to cooling mechanisms, such as home air conditioning and good quality green spaces that can mitigate the effects of extreme heat.

The pandemic has also been especially deadly in low-income communities of color for similar reasons. Comorbidities such as respiratory diseases, hypertension, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, which make people more vulnerable to dying from extreme heat, are the same underlying health conditions that make people more vulnerable to dying from COVID-19. And environmental injustices — such as disproportionate levels of air pollution, industrial development, and lack of access to green space — make low-income communities of color more likely to develop these underlying health conditions that increase their vulnerability to both COVID-19 and extreme heat.

COVID-19 provides a warning of what the future will look like when world problems and underlying social and economic conditions combine with the climate crisis, creating compound risks. Climate risks like extreme heat will only make crises like a global pandemic that much more dangerous for vulnerable communities.

Our Findings

Compounding risks and crises require new forms of preparedness and disaster management by governments. The City of New York has implemented various government programs and policies to address the health impacts caused by extreme heat, including NYC Cool Roofs, Cool Neighborhoods NYC, Cool It NYC, the Be a Buddy program pilot, and by opening cooling centers and establishing a heat vulnerability index. New York State also administers a heating and cooling assistance program through the federally funded Low-Income Home Energy Assistance program (LIHEAP). However, the heightened health risks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic may have been what finally pushed the City to make extreme heat a priority issue and invest in the creation of the Get Cool NYC program. Get Cool NYC is a free air conditioner program created during summer 2020 that advocates had long asked for to address the health impacts experienced by heat-vulnerable communities.

In an effort to better understand the compounding health risks caused by COVID-19 and extreme heat, our team collected survey responses from WE ACT members to evaluate how people coped with extreme heat during the pandemic. Our survey found that:

  1. More people stayed indoors. Results suggest people stayed indoors more due to COVID-19 and relied more on air conditioners (ACs) to stay cool.
  2. Concerns around visiting parks increased. People seemed to avoid green spaces due to concerns about overcrowding and distance to green spaces from their homes.
  3. There was unequal access to air conditioning. The results point to a potential racial disparity in AC access, with AC ownership and access being highest amongst white respondents and lowest amongst Latinx and Black/African American respondents.

The survey results, while preliminary and exploratory, reinforce the previously observed trend that there is a racial disparity in access to and use of cooling mechanisms such as air conditioning and green space. The survey results also align with the concerns expressed by community groups and city officials around the urgent need to provide private indoor cooling to vulnerable populations due to social distancing measures.

graph showing where people spent summers by race

These findings have highlighted a few important points. First, the COVID-19 pandemic heightened the need to accelerate efforts to improve targeted interventions like the City’s free AC and cooling center programs, HVAC retrofitting through LIHEAP, and green space expansion to highly heat-vulnerable areas. Second, there is a need to develop stronger environmental justice community networks and feedback mechanisms to check in on affected residents. Additionally, our research collaboration highlights the importance of consulting and engaging with environmental justice communities and organizations like WE ACT that have put forth data-driven and community-informed policy recommendations for how the City and State can reform their heat resiliency programs to make them more equitable and just.

How the City and State Can Better Protect Heat-vulnerable New Yorkers

  1. Improve communication of heat health-relevant information. To improve the usefulness of the City’s data tools, we recommend the City integrate all the heat-related data it has into one publicly accessible, centralized location that shows mapping of heat vulnerability data, locations of hospitals, tree canopy cover and locations of green spaces and cooling amenities. We also recommend that this centralized website share information about how people can take action to reduce their heat vulnerability and should link to more information about City and State cooling programs, such as the public cooling centers and the LIHEAP cooling assistance program. This centralized website should also be a user-friendly tool that provides neighborhood-specific and street-level information.
  2. Update collection and analysis of heat health data. In line with what community groups have asked for, the City should update the heat-related mortality data it uses and expand the indicators it uses to measure heat-related mortality and heat vulnerability. The City should also reassess what variables it uses to create a heat index by considering other data sources for temperature and the built environment, such as humidity and building material type. This will help improve the accuracy and specificity of the Heat Vulnerability Index tool and allow the City and researchers to make program and funding decisions that better target heat-vulnerable communities. As others have pointed out, heat-related health impacts could be underestimated, potentially preventing many people from benefiting from the City’s programs.
  3. Increase community engagement and provide more opportunities for community input and feedback. Future research regarding heat vulnerability needs to bring in more targeted community feedback. For example, the City can partner with community groups who are already doing air quality monitoring to collect temperature data using micro air quality monitors. Community knowledge can help the City pinpoint where local temperature highs are located throughout neighborhoods. There should also be more regular surveying of communities to understand their needs and to evaluate how the City’s programs are performing in terms of meeting their needs and keeping people safe during heat emergencies.
  4. Evaluate the effectiveness of government climate resiliency policies and tools in targeting NYC’s most heat-vulnerable communities. A systematic and comprehensive review of the City’s Heat Vulnerability Index tool and cooling programs is needed in order to determine how effective they are in reducing heat vulnerability and targeting NYC’s most vulnerable communities. We also recommend annual systematic surveys of the same areas be conducted to understand and evaluate the effectiveness of cooling initiatives over time.
  5. Scale up heat mitigation and resiliency programs that build communities’ short- to long-term adaptive capacity to respond to extreme heat. Advocates have long been asking the City and State to provide more interventions and funding to support community preparedness and address air conditioning access and infrastructure issues that contribute to higher heat vulnerability for low-income communities of color. The City can direct funds from sources such as the American Jobs Plan, the upcoming federal infrastructure plan for building upgrades including weatherization, revenue generated from Local Law 97’s emission fees, and the 2022 NYC budget, which includes significant funding for scaling up energy efficiency and solar on city-owned buildings.
  6. Expand eligibility requirements for the LIHEAP program to finance sustainable cooling installation and energy efficiency retrofits for low-income renters and homeowners. Community groups as well as government officials recommend NY State reform the LIHEAP program to make it easier for vulnerable populations to sign up for the program, and to expand it to provide summer utility bill assistance, as the State did temporarily during the COVID-19 pandemic, using the increased federal funding for the program.
  7. Plant vegetation and expand green spaces in neighborhoods with high heat vulnerability to reduce the urban heat island effect and provide communities with a safe space to cool off, and provide other additional long-term health benefits..
  8. Employ legal mechanisms to prioritize protecting heat-vulnerable communities. Policies such as the proposed City Council bill 1563-2019 — which codifies the City’s cooling center program — and the recently enacted City Council law 1960-2020, which requires the City to submit a heat plan each year, need to be implemented with a core equity focus in order to allocate permanent resources and institutionalize these crucial, life-saving programs.

With current funding streams running out for interventions such as the City’s tree planting initiative and Be a Buddy programs, the future of these health equity-focused programs is uncertain. However, with more frequent global crises and extreme weather events only heightening health risks for vulnerable populations, the need for these types of interventions will be even greater in the future.

 

This study was funded by the Columbia University Earth Frontiers-funded project ‘Climate resilience in Northern Manhattan and the South Bronx: Collaborative, community-led policy research about heat vulnerability in New York City’. Jenny Bock is a recent graduate of Columbia University’s MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program. Sonal Jessel is director of policy at WE ACT for Environmental Justice. The study’s authors also included Robbie M. Parks, Earth Institute post-doctoral research fellow and senior author of the study; Jacqueline Klopp, research scholar and co-director of the Center for Sustainable Urban Development, and Palak Srivastava, Stuyvesant High School senior.

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