How Phoenix Is Trying To Keep People Cool As Temperatures Rise

Jul 9, 2018
Originally published on July 9, 2018 7:34 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Phoenix is one of the country's hottest cities and getting hotter. The city had a record number of heat-related deaths last year. Now Phoenix has launched a new effort to try to keep people cooler and to be a model for coping in a warming world. Will Stone of member station KJZZ reports as part of our series on heat.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: Any newcomer to the Phoenix summer quickly discovers the best parking spot isn't the one closest to the entrance. It's the one next to the tree. But Michael Hammett believes the answer to more shade could also be something as simple as an umbrella. Hammett works for the city. And on this summer afternoon, he's gauging attitudes toward the yet-to-be fashionable idea at a downtown bus stop.

MICHAEL HAMMETT: So have you ever used an umbrella for heat?

DEB NEILD: A couple times.

HAMMETT: OK.

NEILD: Mostly for rain, but...

HAMMETT: Here you go. We'll let you test it out.

STONE: Almost immediately, Deb Neild replies, somewhat surprised...

NEILD: Yes, definitely. Definitely cooler already, I can feel it.

STONE: Hammett presses her.

HAMMETT: So if we gave this to you to test out, do you think you'd be likely to use it?

STONE: She says, sure.

HAMMETT: Well, it's yours.

NEILD: Really?

HAMMETT: Yeah, it's yours.

NEILD: Wow, that's cool. Thank you.

STONE: It may seem like a small solution to a huge problem, namely, an already very hot city that now has nearly a week more 110-degree summer days than it did in the 1970s, a place where it got so hot last year, planes couldn't take off. But Hammett says it's just one of many ideas the city is testing to see what could make the biggest difference during scorching summers that scientists project will get even worse.

HAMMETT: The goal of this is to create a blueprint to make Phoenix the first heat-ready city in the nation.

STONE: Former Phoenix mayor Greg Stanton says extreme heat threatens the city's economy and people's lives.

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GREG STANTON: It's a public health crisis. In 2016, 150 people in our region died from heat-related illness. Thousands more are getting sick.

STONE: Especially the elderly, low-income and homeless.

DAVID HONDULA: This really is the extreme case.

STONE: That's David Hondula, a professor at Arizona State University who is helping the city with its plan.

HONDULA: Our warm season seems to be getting longer, and we have more of these days that are at, near or slightly above some of the key thresholds for public health.

STONE: Hondula attributes about half of this to climate change and the rest to the built environment. Those parking lots and wide roads, strip malls and air conditioners all keep the city hotter, what's called the urban heat island effect, especially overnight. Nighttime minimum temperatures are about 9 degrees warmer than they were a few decades ago. But Hondula says there are ways to reverse this.

HONDULA: Some of the strategies we could deploy in cities, like deploying white roofs or other technologies that help offset that urban heat effect, could lead to significant cooling.

STONE: More public transit would cut the heat footprint from cars. But most of all, Hondula says, the city needs a lot more trees. Phoenix aims to have 25-percent shade cover by 2030, but it still has a long way to go. It's a pressing problem in low-income and largely Hispanic neighborhoods that tend to be the hottest. Maggie Messerschmidt of The Nature Conservancy is going door to door in one such place east of Phoenix trying to get people involved in the plan.

MAGGIE MESSERSCHMIDT: First of all, we want to learn how to better cope with the heat together. But secondly, we want to figure out how to reduce the temperatures in the neighborhood.

STONE: There are few trees, lots of gravel and bare yards. Many people here are renters, so they haven't invested in shade. One man says he plans to buy homes to rent out. But...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: If it costs me an extra $300 per month to maintain the homes because of the landscaping we put in, I'm not making a dime. It isn't worth owning the properties.

STONE: She floats the idea of a financial incentive. On another street, one woman wants a change in the bus stops.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The seats are metal. How the heck are we not supposed to burn ourselves on the metal?

STONE: Others ask about a fountain, a place for kids to cool down as they walk home from school. Later this year, these ideas will be vetted and folded into a final action plan, one that Phoenix hopes can help other cities too as they adapt to longer and hotter summers. For NPR News, I'm Will Stone in Phoenix. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.