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This Island is Hot

By Ian Van der Merwe

The following piece is part of Progressive City's Planning for Environmental Justice series. Contributions reflect on this theme through a variety of lenses, such as environmental justice, combatting green gentrification, and exploring radical approaches to climate change. Read more about this series here.

A shaded street in Salt Lake City. Photo by Ian Van der Merwe.

Many planners learn about the Urban Heat Island (UHI) effect in university, but even if we had not we all still would have known about it by now. Global warming has joined with UHI to deadly effect in urban spaces all over the world. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “heat island effect results in daytime temperatures in urban areas about 1–7°F higher than... in outlying areas,” and where each passing summer brings new record-high temperatures, every degree matters, and combating UHI can make the difference between life and death in the face of already rising temperatures.

Many municipalities have turned to trees as the obvious solution, and in many ways they are on the right track. Trees and other vegetation can do a lot to combat heat at the local level, and the proliferation of urban forestry and other measures like daylighting rivers and streams can bring about a city that is both cooler and more inline with its surrounding and internal ecology. But planners would be remiss to not understand the ways that urban greenery has, and threatens to affect the social fabric of our cities. Green gentrification, where urban greenery is used to further gentrification, remains an ever present threat. The stage is already set for this vulgar approach to addressing urban heating; previously redlined neighborhoods already suffer higher temperatures than their non-redlined counterparts and recent work done by academics and community members in New York City found that some of the cities lower-income neighborhoods were up to 8°F hotter than “some of the city’s richest neighborhoods, just a few miles away.” Efforts to confront urban heating in these neighborhoods will inevitably come up against the ever present logic of the real-estate industry. Real estate and capitalist urban development is, above all else, committed to using every nicety, benefit, and amenity a neighborhood has to offer to extract higher and higher rents, sales costs, and profits from land. Ultimately, the real-estate industry sees land as both a commodity to be bought and sold, and as a means of accumulating capital itself. Caught in a market catering to urban-bound middle- and upper-class professionals, the urban and even suburban working-classes seem doomed to be replaced by those ready to spend more in rent on LEED-certified, redeveloped, apartments and shop at new upscale, greenwashed shops.

But urban heating has massive implications for the working class outside of green gentrification too. Following the death of 24 year-old, UPS driver, Esteban Chavez Jr. in California, UPS workers and their union are pushing for better conditions for their drivers, namely air conditioning and better heat protections. Across the United States, the Bureau of Labor Statistics recorded 62 “extreme- temperature” related workplace fatalities in 2020, up 17% from 2019. Alongside these increases, the share of Latinx worker fatalities is also on the rise, growing from 20.4% in 2019 to 22.5% in 2020 (the total number of fatalities dropped from 1,088 to 1,072, but still shows a 22% increase from 879 fatalities in 2016). With workers of color being over represented in occupations susceptible to urban heating (landscaping, construction, etc.), rising temperatures threaten racialized and class-specific consequences. As temperatures continue to skyrocket, we can expect more and more fatalities, making the actions of the UPS Teamsters union an incredibly important and necessary step to mitigating the harm to workers in the face of climate change.

A poster in a library in Salt Lake City. Photo by Ian Van der Merwe.

Recently, some municipalities and local governments have created “Cool Zone” programs, advertising public spaces like libraries and community centers as designated, air-conditioned, places to cool off. While these programs have no-doubt saved lives, and show the important role public spaces can play in tackling societal challenges, some issues with this approach have emerged. In an article covering Phoenix Arizona’s massive increase in heat-related emergencies, the Guardian found that heat-related 911 calls spiked after 6pm, when the city’s cooling centers closed. This finding shows both the success of the city’s Cool Zones while they are open and their failure to stop preventable heat-related emergencies occurring after the zones' doors close. While staffing and maintenance of such zones to cover more areas for longer-times will require additional resources, expanding such zones to more equitably serve neighborhoods in need and populations like youth who might not have many accessible places to go, seems to be one of the most effective and practical ways to provide life-saving cooling in the summers to come. It needs to be clearly stated though that these Cool Zones work because they are public spaces and free, any future attempts to privatize or otherwise restrict access must be fought if they are to truly be a part of our response to urban heating.

But it is not enough to simply explore and critique the often racist and classist measures taken by the ruling-class and the planners who support them, progressive urbanists and planners must also undertake the difficult task of constructing visions of alternative urbanisms fit for human flourishing. Urban heating has massive implications on the ways people move around. As if the argument against car-oriented planning was not strong enough already, the seas of asphalt demanded by widespread car-usage in the form of roads and parking lots are major contributors to urban heat (not to mention the other impacts from car-exhaust). Recent research has tied contiguous development to worsened urban heating effects. A simple park strip is not enough to reduce the negative effects of cities full of parking lots, roads, and buildings. If planners are to take this finding seriously, then greening our cities needs to occur on a scale far beyond what is currently imagined by planners and environmentalists alike. Reconstructing urban space to facilitate more ecological and equitable living must include not only a reduction in cars, but more fundamentally, a reduction in the construction of new roads, and the transformation of existing roads into something unrecognizable to the current day traffic engineer; replacing cars with public and active forms of transportation and replacing exposed roads with covered urban trails fit for all sorts of health, safe, environmentally friendly, and social ways of moving around. In re-imagining our cities, planners and architects can draw inspiration from traditional architecture cultivated in societies which have long had to deal with scalding summer heat. The North African/Middle-Eastern covered bazaars and passive-cooling architecture embodied beautifully in wind-catchers show potential design elements of an ecologically healthy city. Covered streets, whether with trees, tarps, or both, would provide much-needed protection to pedestrians while passive-cooling retrofits to existing structures would cool urban buildings without resorting to energy-intensive solutions like air-conditioning.

Urban heating is the result of cities that were built against the ecological systems that they exist within. Planners are uniquely positioned at the point of spatial production, tasked with overseeing, managing, and contributing to the very spaces that are currently contributing to urban heating. The only way for cities to adequately confront and address urban crises like heating is for planners to develop liberatory, radical solutions which critique the existing systems of oppression and exploitation manifest in our cities and seek “a clear break with the practices that dominate the profession and posits a set of actions in direct contradiction to the norms and values that rule the day.” I do not know what these new actions will look like, but planners, organized in their workplaces and allied with similar efforts in architecture and other industries involved in spatial production, collectively working to confront the reproduction of harmful urban practices will have a shot at discovering those actions. Such an alliance between planning and architecture, already brought together in many university departments, could also create the space for new experiments in spatial production and design, freed from private clients and developers, and given the opportunity to imagine and begin constructing the building blocks of a better city. Alongside this, supporting the efforts of other groups struggling against urban, space-based issues, like workers’ fight for better heat protections and community activists confronting inequitable heating in their neighborhoods, will allow us to connect their struggles with larger concerns over the production and design of space, the ultimate cause of many of the inequalities being confronted. The actions of past planners, architects, and policymakers led to the cities we live in today, and it will take breaking with the current order of things to ensure our work becomes a part of the solution to urban heating, climate change, social inequality, and the fight for a better world.

Ian Van der Merwe is a recent graduate from the University of Utah’s undergraduate Urban Ecology program, a prospective graduate student, and an aspiring planner in the Salt Lake Valley.




We feature stories on inclusive urban planning practices, grassroots organizing, and civic action. Our contributors and readers are activists, reporters, practitioners, academics, and community members.


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