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I recently tuned into a New York City Urban Green webinar discussing climate change and its effect on equity and health issues experienced by people living in New York City buildings. Although the USA tends to experience more extreme weather conditions than Europe, climate change is increasing temperatures and severe weather events and higher summer temperatures on both continents (in July 2021 the Met Office issued its first ever extreme-heat advisory). There will be increasing parallels between the poorly designed and equipped, affordable building stock discussed in this conference in NYC, and many buildings in London and other densely built regions in the UK, as temperatures rise.

Increased urban development and density, storm damage, and climate change is leading to intense heat and heat island effects on city streets and buildings. Navigating the urban environment can be brutal with limited shade and refuge from heat and sun. Cities will become unbearable places to live in summer, but the majority of population do not have the option to leave.

The webinar highlighted a case study undertaken in the Red Hook area of Brooklyn, NY. Red Hook is a waterfront neighbourhood traditionally with dated housing and low-income residents. It was discovered that:

  • Residents are increasingly experiencing extreme on-street temperatures regularly exceeding 35C.
  • Heat leads to exacerbating existing health conditions, and residents are reluctant to venture outside during summer months.
  • Increased heat problems in summer are due to: Climate change; Reduced shading due to tree fall in hurricane sandy with few replacements planted (or young trees that are not yet matured); Increased construction; A limited number and adequately sized parks, and; Increased hard landscaping.
  • An NYC initiative called the “Cool Streets Program” aims to tackle this problem on an immediate timeframe, building shaded seating on streets and installing cool mist sprayers utilizing water from hydrants, but no long-term solutions are currently proposed or required in urban or building planning frameworks.

Heat vulnerability is how likely a person is to be injured or harmed during periods of hot weather. Vulnerability to heat has been linked to individuals’ characteristics (health status, socio-demographics, etc.) as well as certain aspects of the community where one lives (environment, community demographics).

It was discussed how heat vulnerability is increasing in low-income areas. Higher income neighbourhoods, prized for their tree-lined avenues and ample green space, are not so affected.

A part of the problem appears to be equity in electrification of building heating and cooling systems (in NYC it is common for multi-tenanted/affordable housing buildings to be served by a single building gas fired heating system. AC is usually not a landlord provision; tenants have the option to install in-window units). This leads to:

  • Heat related health impacts. Extreme heat worsens health conditions; hot days classified as 82F+ also contribute.
  • With the heat island effect compounding the warming from climate change, cities will likely require more electricity for air conditioning than surrounding areas.
  • Air quality related health impacts of dated and inefficient building systems.
  • Wellbeing affected by a lack of temperature control in summer in residences, building-wide heating systems, and a lack of AC.
  • Power outages caused by inadequate infrastructure has substantial impacts on mortality, respiratory disease, individual electrical medical equipment. It is common for New York to have planned blackouts, usually in Brooklyn, in the summer, because the Grid can’t cope with demand.
  • There is an increasing view of environmental racism, disinvestment, POC in these neighborhoods, and being low income. Cost burden on individuals from electrification: A lot to affordable housing resident, not much to regular people. Considering means tested rates, affordable building allowances – pushes developer/landlord to increase efficiency because they pay all or majority of utilities.
  • The aim amongst built environment professionals is to phase out fossil fuel powered building systems, switch to electric, more efficient. Also better air quality from buildings.
  • New York is striving to be leaders in energy policy, pushing developers to be better and to generate better buildings. Where NYC goes, the rest of the country usually follows.

The webinar only focussed on NYC, but in the UK the heatwave of 2019 caused an additional 892 deaths. Something also not usually considered is the increased burden and economic impacts in the agriculture and transport sectors during times of extreme heat. The following journal article describes the gap in government policy approach to heatwaves in the UK.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1462901120313782

“Despite research suggesting that up to 20 % of homes currently experience overheating problems during an average UK summer, new houses built in line with Government housing plans do not have to factor overheating into their designs”

“…there is currently no ‘maximum’ safe working temperature under the UK’s Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, despite there being a ‘minimum’ safe working temperature.”

“…two-thirds of the overheating studies reviewed suggest that upwards of 20 % UK buildings exceed the maximum thermal comfort limit for a normal UK summer, without additional extreme heat, or the projected higher summer temperatures from climate change”

Most efforts to cool urban heat islands produce many benefits, including lower temperatures, electricity demand, air pollution, greenhouse gases, and harmful health impacts. Efforts to reduce the heat island effect thus also help to address climate change and improve air quality. In addition, these same measures can help communities become more resilient to many of the damaging impacts of climate change. The need for electricity, especially during heat waves, could stress our electricity infrastructure, resulting in more frequent or prolonged power outages, or a need for new system investments. Using more electricity and adding more capacity for its production will likely result in more emissions of air pollution and the greenhouse gases that cause climate change.

If you would like to discuss what you can do to help with climate change and the impact it has on the people you care about most, check out our Environmental Health Check options or contact us and we are happy to guide you.