Ladd Keith currently serves as assistant professor in the School of Landscape Architecture and Planning at the University of Arizona. His research explores heat planning and governance with funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Department of Transportation.
Historically, heat has received less attention than hazards such as hurricanes or wildfires, whose visible damage to physical property draws more attention. But as extreme heat has become more frequent, longer in duration and more intense due to climate change, local, state and federal governments need to work together to address the issue and advance heat governance to create more resilient communities.
Extreme heat is the top weather-related killer in the U.S., leading to more than 1,300 deaths per year. It can cause heat exhaustion and heat stroke, exacerbate preexisting conditions like diabetes, and increase the risk for preterm births and hospital admissions for mental health-related issues. Heat also affects quality of life, economic activity, infrastructure, and energy and water use.
In cities, increasing heat due to climate change is worsened by the urban heat island effect, where natural vegetation is replaced with pavement and buildings, leading to higher absorption and retention of heat. This disproportionately impacts marginalized and lower-income communities and compounds other systemic inequities, increasing impacts for those without reliable access to healthcare, energy for indoor cooling, quality housing and thermally safe school and workplace conditions.
At the local level, policymakers can lessen the impact of extreme heat by using a framework to advance heat resilience that addresses historical injustices and the diverse needs of their communities. It’s vital that all levels of government implement a range of metrics that span scales and sectors to assess progress toward heat resilience goals. These metrics should be agreed on, collected consistently, and evaluated to better measure progress.
We also need to integrate and implement heat governance at the national level. A recent first-of-its-kind assessment by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget revealed that climate change could result in federal revenue loss equivalent to about $2 trillion a year by the end of the century. Although some cities like Los Angeles, Miami and Phoenix have recently created positions like chief heat officers, the majority of the nation’s thousands of resource-strapped cities and towns need federal assistance to advance heat governance. Congress has begun taking action that would help the entire nation address heat as a significant risk.
This spring, Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., and Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., introduced the Excess Urban Heat Mitigation Act, which would create a competitive grant program through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for projects to help cool urban landscapes.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., reintroduced the Safe Temperature Act last year, which would give HUD the ability to require properties receiving federal assistance to maintain temperatures between 71 and 81 degrees, ensuring that more people in the U.S. have safe, comfortable living conditions.
Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., introduced the Preventing HEAT Illnesses and Deaths Act of 2021 to provide statutory authority to the National Integrated Heat Health Information System and improve the nation’s capacity to prepare for, adapt to and mitigate the health risks of extreme heat. NIHHIS is a critical interagency program. It held its first national meeting this spring for federal agencies, state and local governments, private and public partners, community leaders and researchers to engage in a path forward for equitable, heat-resilient cities.
Ultimately, communities in the U.S. must be better equipped to coordinate both their heat mitigation and heat management strategies.
Heat mitigation strategies aim to reduce the built environment’s contribution to urban heat. These approaches, often led by urban planners and designers, include strategically shaping land uses and urban design; protecting natural areas; planting trees; creating spaces to encourage air flow; and minimizing waste heat.
As for heat management, public health and emergency management professionals play an important role in addressing the heat risk that cannot be mitigated and helping to prepare and respond to heat waves. More communities are establishing cooling centers, but proactive, longer-term approaches are also needed. This includes access to reliable indoor cooling; ensuring resilient energy grid systems; reducing personal heat exposure at home, work, school and travel; and improving access to healthcare.
It’s imperative that the federal government support local heat mitigation and management efforts to address inequities and create a more heat-resilient nation.
Contributed pieces do not reflect an editorial position by Smart Cities Dive.
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