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Story Publication logo August 30, 2021

Cooling D.C. Requires Thinking About Who’s Most Vulnerable to Heat

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A team of youth reporters will map temperature differences across D.C. and examine the causes and...

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Type in an address to learn more about which neighborhoods have the largest number of residents with medical conditions such as diabetes and heart and respiratory ailments that can be exacerbated by exposure to extreme heat.

Perhaps no one in the District feels the impact of industrial heat more than residents in Ivy City, in Ward 5 south of Brookland, right next to Gallaudet University. A railroad coach yard takes up much of the neighborhood. There are warehouses, industrial activities, and few parks. Over the past decade, the area has also experienced rapid development. Private real estate firm Douglas Development started to buy warehouses and convert them into apartments and retail shops roughly a decade ago. These changes have added more buildings to the area, but little green space. 

“We do have trees, but they’re sporadic,” says Sebrena Rhodes, an ANC commissioner for single member district 5D01 and an organizer with the community activism group Empower DC. “We don’t have much grass, so mostly we’re walking on concrete.”


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A few blocks away from the Michelin-lauded Ivy City Smokehouse, residents have been fighting with developers and local governments to prioritize the needs of the community. 

One of the most recent fights was over the redevelopment on the site of the Crummell School, the historically Black institution named after educator Alexander Crummell. The school closed in the 1970s and has been off limits to the public ever since. Rhodes says the community had long desired to return the parcel for community use, but the D.C. government had other ideas initially. 

Mayor Muriel Bowser approved a plan from Ivy City Partners, one of the three bidders that responded to the city’s 2016 request for proposals. It would have built more than 300 apartments on the site. The plan included urban gardens, but according to Rhodes, this housing would not be affordable and green space was not going to be prioritized.

Some developers meet the quota for green spaces by creating rooftop gardens on the apartment complexes. While rooftop gardens cool down cities, they are only accessible to those who can afford to live in those units and don’t benefit the greater community. Trees and green spaces are not just for the overall cooling of cities. These places are also meant to aid residents and provide temporary relief during excruciating hot summer days. 

After years of community pushback, Bowser agreed to include $20 million in next year’s District budget proposal to convert the Crummell site into a community and recreation center earlier this year. 

It was a major breakthrough. But it will take a few years to build the new community center. Until then, residents have little park and green space available besides Lewis Crowe Park, a pocket park at the corner of Mount Olivet Road NE and West Virginia Avenue NE. According to Rhodes, however, “the activity that happens down there is not acceptable for children, or anybody that wants to sit down there and just be in a park.” 

Columbia Heights residents have also fought multiyear battles over green space with little to show for it. The Columbia Heights Civic Plaza on 14th Street NW was planned as pedestrian friendly with “predominantly hardscaped” (as in, constructed with hard, impervious materials). The 14th Street NW corridor was developed to accommodate two 11-foot-wide travel lanes and two 14-foot-wide bike lanes. Street curbs would be extended and sidewalks had to be at a minimum of 16 feet wide in the “core area.” All this to enhance “pedestrian environment” and “create a sense of a much larger and cohesive public space.” Apparently no one was thinking much about the heat island that is today one of the hottest in the District, though residents in this area have expressed a need for more “greening” since at least 2005.

In 2011, residents of Columbia Heights and other nearby neighborhoods also participated in workshops to voice their concerns and discuss neighborhood planning issues. They discussed topics ranging from infill development and concerns about growing chain stores and dwindling small businesses to the preservation of rowhouses as a means of preventing demolition to make way for luxury condos. 

The 2011 report from the Office of Planning noted that residents felt the area was in “dire” need of more parkland. It also noted that new development in the area should also include land for parks, pocket parks, and plazas.

But in hindsight, that 2011 report seems to foreshadow the heat island problems experienced in the area today. It stated, “This Planning area has a very high percentage of impervious surface coverage and lost much of its tree cover during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Tree planting is needed to reduce urban runoff, create shade, remove air pollutants, and create beauty in the neighborhoods. Future development should incorporate green roofs and other methods to reduce resource consumption, conserve energy and water, and be more environmentally friendly.”

Flash-forward to last year, when an April 2020 draft of the new Comprehensive Plan’s Mid-City Area Element illustrated how little has changed on the greening front. The 2020 draft states that “Mid-City is the densest part of Washington, DC, but the ratio of park acreage per resident is among the lowest in the District,” and again states that new construction should prioritize more “greening.” But if the 2011 Element report is any guide, such statements don’t necessarily translate into actions.

That’s not to say the Mid-City area hasn’t seen big changes in recent years, just not ones that could bring down the summertime heat. The Mid-City area’s population has grown from 84,452 in 2010 to 96,489 as of 2017 and is expected to grow to more than 134,000 residents in the same 3.1-square-mile area by 2025. As of 2017, one in every four residents are White, while the Black population had declined to 47 percent in 2017 from 52 percent in 2000, and the area’s Latinx population fell by more than half during that time frame, to 10.7 percent in 2017. New residents largely arrived, the draft report states, for the new condos and apartments, at the same time when many of the area’s affordable housing covenants were at risk of expiring.

Similar trends are unfolding in other parts of the District and globally too. More than half the world’s population lives in cities today and 68 percent of the world is expected to reside in urban areas by 2050. D.C. is expected to have nearly a million residents by 2045, up from about 700,000 today, according to the D.C. government and the U.S. Census Bureau, respectively. 

Those D.C. population growth projections—coupled with the need for more housing, particularly affordable housing—are already leading to fights over various neighborhood redevelopment plans around the District, as well as efforts to increase limits on development density in Ward 1 and other heat island hubs. Proposals have been met with plenty of pushback by residents for a variety of reasons, but reducing the urban heat is not one of them, underscoring the lack of public awareness of heat islands and their dangers. Awareness is likely to increase in coming years, experts say, along with the summertime highs.

A WARMING D.C. 

D.C.’s population trajectory is accompanied by the city’s rising summertime temperatures. In the District, the average summer temperature is expected to increase from a toasty 87 degrees to between an average of 93 and 97 degrees by 2080, according to the Department of Energy & Environment. The number of heat emergencies the District declares annually, whenever temperatures are forecast to reach 95 degrees or above, are also projected to increase to between 40 and 75 days a year by 2080, according to DOEE.

Even more dangerous than consistently high temperatures are the dramatic temperature swings we see in cities like D.C., says climate scientist. He says places like Miami, where he lives, have lower heat-related fatalities because it’s always hot in Miami, so the locals are used to the heat and act accordingly. 

“In places like Philly, D.C., and New York, where you have temperatures in the 80s, and all of a sudden you have a week that goes up to near 100 degrees—that’s what kills the people,” according to climate scientist Laurence Kalkstein, who has studied extreme heat in Washington, D.C., and several other cities in the U.S. and abroad. He says cities as far north as Boston and Toronto, west toward Minneapolis, south to Oklahoma City, and east to the Carolinas, “that square is the most vulnerable area. Of course, Washington is in it.”

In D.C., the summertime heat is at its worst when areas are in the grips of “Moist Tropical+” air mass, which is hotter and more humid than relatively benign “Moist Tropical” and “Moist Moderate” categories, says Kalkstein, who led a study in 2013 that examined what it would take to shift temperatures enough to reduce the number of “Moist Tropical+” days. Eight years ago, when the report was published, it asserted that on average 16 summer days, or 18 percent of D.C.’s summer, fell into the dangerously “oppressive air mass” category. 

“Moist Tropical+ is a killer air mass,” Kalkstein says. “It’s not just heatstroke and heat exhaustion. Heart attacks and respiratory failure and strokes all go up dramatically during heat waves.” 

The studies Kalkstein leads use computer simulations to determine how incorporating more reflective materials, like painting roofs, building walls and asphalt surfaces lighter colors, planting more trees, and other adaptive measures could reduce temperatures and save lives. Kalkstein’s work in other cities since the 2013 D.C. report has gone on to show fatalities can be significantly reduced.

“In some of our cities, we’re seeing a cooling of two to three degrees, but a reduction in heat-related deaths of up to 28 or 30 percent,” he says.

To get across the message about how deadly the summertime heat can be, Kalkstein is part of an effort, along with the Atlantic Council and the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation, to create a new system modeled after hurricane warnings that would rank heat waves based on their ability to kill people. 

“Everyone is aware or should be aware of the danger of hurricanes. Heat is a low awareness threat,” Kalkstein says. “People just don’t feel vulnerable. We’ve done questionnaires. And we ask people, do you think you’re vulnerable to heat? And they say ‘no.’” He finds it ironic that when people are with friends, “We all complain about our ills, but somehow on a questionnaire we are all immediately healthy.”

Hola Cultura’s team interviewed dozens of people this summer and have found a remarkable amount of stoicism among the people most at risk. From Jonathan Mejia in Anacostia, whose family survives D.C. summers with only a few fans for relief, to street vendors and day laborers, and even the city’s most vulnerable—unhoused residents. Many people we spoke with are focused on myriad day-to-day challenges and are largely unconcerned about heat. 

Take Edward Ash, a 58-year-old with blood clots in his lungs and heart, who has been living for several years under one of Washington, D.C.’s bridges. With all that living on the streets entails, Ash shrugs off the problem of extreme heat. He says the worst part of living outside is that you never know when someone will come up behind you when you’re trying to get some sleep.

“It’s a rough thing to be out here, but it’s not too bad over here,” according to Ash, who says the bridge overhead provides plenty of shade. For times when rush hour traffic clogs the I-395 lanes and heats up the air around him, he has two fans that he hooks up to a pirated electrical connection and angles to keep him cool while he reclines on a decrepit couch donated by a good samaritan. 

KEEP COOL DC

DOEE’s James Dunbar says his department has been working on different aspects of climate change mitigation, adaptation, and environmental sustainability for many years, “but we didn’t really have anything super robust for extreme heat.” That’s about to change.

For the past several months, DOEE has been working on “Keep Cool DC,” a heat island adaptation plan and online “story map,” which Dunbar says could be released for public comment, possibly as soon as later this summer or fall, while the weather is still hot and heat is still on people’s minds. The first draft of the plan is a positive indicator that the city is now acknowledging heat islands as a specific issue to tackle rather than a topic tangential to bigger climate issues.

Scrolling through the city’s heat exposure and sensitivity maps during a Zoom screen share, Dunbar says the new plan will include a “Heat Sensitivity-Exposure Index” that will take into consideration the locations of D.C.’s hottest districts, levels of tree canopy, and impervious surfaces such as roadways and sidewalks. The index will also incorporate indicators of “heat sensitivity,” such as demographic and health data around the District, to determine where the most heat-vulnerable people live and where D.C. residents are expected to be hit the hardest by climate change. Among the indicators DOEE has deployed are where the District has its largest populations of people of color, the elderly, young children, low-to-no-income residents, people with disabilities, and people with limited English proficiency such as immigrants.

The resulting areas of concern are “more or less what we would expect in places with overlap between disadvantaged communities and lack of tree canopy and too much impervious surface,” says Dunbar, which not just the heat island centers such as Columbia Heights, Brightwood Park, or Michigan Park, but also large swaths of Anacostia, Congress Heights, and other D.C. zip codes that rank among the city’s poorest.

Kurt Shickman from the Global Cool Cities Alliance, a nonprofit that worked on the 2013 study with Kalkstein, lives in D.C. and has been observing the D.C. government’s work on heat islands for several years. He says the District’s government has a pretty good heat islands track record, compared to other cities around the country.

“From Williams to Fenty to Bowser,” Shickman says, “we’ve had a pretty consistent approach to this problem across the different administrations,” which has benefited the city. 

He says that D.C. was one of the first U.S. cities to start thinking about who is most vulnerable to extreme heat a decade ago, when the D.C. government participated in the 2013 study led by Kalkstein and Global Cool Cities. D.C. remains a national leader when it comes to its tree planting and urban forestry efforts. The District was among the first to add cool roof requirements to building codes for commercial and large multifamily residential buildings, and is “still one of the most green roofed cities in the country.” 

Where the D.C. government and others around the country could do better, he says, is in changing the entire mindset around urban heat. He calls it “a chameleon issue” because D.C. and other cities marshal the resources to address the problem across multiple different marquee issues—from stormwater management, which shares some of the same fixes such as tree planting, to environmental justice spending. 

But heat islands have, to date, seldom garnered the attention or funding received by stormwater management, perhaps because stormwater is undeniably linked to property values and address the concerns of property owners and developers, while heat island adaptation largely benefits the most vulnerable among us, who usually don’t have the mayor or D.C. councilmembers on speed dial. 

Without strong and determined top-down leadership, Shickman says heat island reduction efforts can get lost amid competing agencies and city priorities. He says Florida’s Miami-Dade County addressed this problem this spring by naming a “chief heat officer,” a first in the nation position designed to spearhead action across county agencies.

Here in D.C., Shickman would like to see something akin to “winterization” programs for the summer months, which could open the door to “more thermal comfort interventions on low-income homes in the city,” similar to what Philadelphia and Baltimore have already launched. He says such an approach would “substantially improve the conditions that people live in,” particularly for residents living in rowhouses, an architectural design that prioritizes keeping in the heat.

The District’s new emphasis on heat islands will go beyond the Keep Cool DC plan too, says Dunbar, who adds that the city government is considering new capital investments, design standards, and development plans. Beyond thinking carefully about where to plant more trees, practical efforts can be as simple as “adding more bus shelters in strategic [shady] locations, such that they’re not just baking in the sun.” 

Several existing programs can also help reduce the urban heat. The D.C. government’s green roof program gives tax benefits to those homeowners and developers, for instance. Developers have embraced whitewashing a roof or installing a green roof when tree planting isn’t feasible on a development site. Kalkstein’s work shows that whitewashing can make a building cooler by reducing the amount of energy getting absorbed in the roof, which brings down air-conditioning needs too. Kalkstein says city governments can encourage more people to make these types of investments by offering more tax incentives and rebates.

Shickman points out that while cities have regulations requiring landlords to ensure heating during the winter months, regulations have not yet caught up with the emerging reality of urban heat, where “air-conditioners are now almost like medical equipment … required to keep people healthy and safe.”

“There isn’t a requirement for landlords to do anything related to cooling” or help with air-conditioning costs the way many cities help low-income residents with winter heating bills, Shickman says. “What we find is you can look around and see window air-conditioner units or the central air units, but that doesn’t mean they’re being used,” he says. “A lot of times people are opting out of using it because it’s just too expensive.” 

While the District’s housing code includes a stipulation that landlords that provide air-conditioning must maintain it consistently from mid-May to mid-September and indoor temperatures in those buildings “shall equal the greater of 78° F or at least 15° F less than the outside temperature,” that only helps some D.C. residents. “Air Conditioning is not required in the DC housing code. However, if a property is offering air conditioning, the system must be fully operational,” writes Jameel Harris, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs’ public information officer.

To date, the city’s heat emergency plan has focused on the District’s so-called “cooling centers.” By design, most of these centers are neighborhood libraries, community centers, spray parks, and senior and affordable housing sites, where people can hang out without the expectation of spending money. 

While they might be the most viable options for residents to get temporary shelter from the heat, critics of the centers are underwhelmed and even the District’s focus groups showed that “people didn’t know that cooling centers were even ‘a thing,’” according to one D.C. government source.

For starters, the heat doesn’t keep regular business hours. While the District’s Heat Emergency Plan says city officials may open cooling centers to respond to specific emergencies, few of the existing facilities on the District’s cooling centers map are open to the public 24/7. Many aren’t all that conveniently located either. Looking at the cooling map provided on the heat emergency plan, the hottest neighborhoods don’t always have the most coverage. There are less than ten cooling stations in Columbia Heights and Northeast D.C., for example. 

Shickman says not all the solutions will come from governments. He’d like to see a network of “trusted agents in the middle, like churches, others … creating these social connections [like phone trees to check on vulnerable neighbors] that are needed ... in these emergency days to make sure people are okay, make sure they have water, make sure they have a cool space to go to.”

The District is currently considering just such a community-led approach by following Baltimore, Minneapolis, and other cities investing in “resilience hubs” that go beyond the cooling center concept to provide “wraparound emergency services,” says Jennifer Li of the Georgetown University Law Center, who has been working with DOEE on the concept for the past three years. These hubs are meant to be “trusted, and community-managed facilities that are used year round” with the support of but not run directly by government agencies, according to Urban Sustainability Directors Network

“The idea is that this resilience hub could act as a cooling center,” says Li. She adds that the space could also be a communication hub with backup power, where residents could refrigerate their medications, for instance, in the event of power outages, and receive emergency services in one centralized spot during heat or public health emergencies or the case of flooding emergencies.

She says the city has begun the process of potentially rolling out its first resilience hub in Ward 7, one of the more flood-prone areas of the District, but residents and the long history of government mistrust have made for a rocky beginning.

“DOEE went into that community saying, ‘Here are climate plans, how do we tailor them to your community?’” says Li. But residents pushed back, asking: “Why are you telling us this now, after you’ve written the plan? Why have we not been part of that conversation from the beginning?”

Li says DOEE has responded by redoubling its efforts to overcome the mistrust and build constructive relationships and the city’s first resilience hub in Ward 7, but the incident highlights how important communication and public education are to bridge the “trust deficit between government agencies” and the District’s most vulnerable residents.

Ironically, more air-conditioning to address climate change will create more emissions from all the energy required to keep the air-conditioning flowing. The exhaust from those window and central air units also add more heat to the streets, further putting the unhoused and people who work outside like Chuck Jackson at higher risk. Shickman says these realities mean that efforts to cool down outdoor temperatures must go hand-in-hand with expanding access to air-conditioning. But that will require more public awareness and greater political will, changes that will take time that Jackson doesn’t have.

“Everybody just ignores how hot it is out here and comes on out anyway,” says Jackson, who feels he has no choice but to break out his umbrella and “just deal with it.”

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