1953 New York City Heat Wave, Patrick Stackpole

Resilient Cooling Solutions for Affordable Communities

How might we mitigate the health impacts of heat waves for vulnerable populations?

Heat waves kill more Americans (9,000 between 1979–2014) than any other weather event in the United States.[1] Since the 1970s, record-setting daily high temperatures have become more common than record lows across the United States.[2] In our warming climate, heat waves, characterized by multiple days of heat and humidity, are becoming longer, more frequent, and more intense.[3] As a result, heat-related hospitalizations and deaths are on the rise (2–5% increase between 2001–2010).[4]

Economist, Data from NASA and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration

Low-income communities are among the most vulnerable populations to heat waves because they often cannot afford air conditioning units or cannot afford to turn them on during peak pricing, and therefore, get no reprieve from the heat. Dehydration, heat stroke, cardiovascular illnesses, such as strokes, respiratory illnesses, such as asthma, and other heat-related illnesses catalyze the cycle of poverty by increasing medical bills.[5]

While most heat mitigation efforts have tried to make air conditioning more accessible with subsidies and other solutions, passive cooling measures and the power of social infrastructure have been widely overlooked. MKThink is exploring the success of passive cooling interventions in different geographic, climatic, and social contexts.

Passive cooling strategies, such as cool roofs, high volume low speed (HVLS) fans, night-time flushing, and shading are affordable alternatives to air conditioning and increase the resilience of low-income communities by reducing their reliance on electricity to provide thermal comfort and safety. The key to passive cooling is to prevent the building from heating up in the first place, rather than using energy to cool it down.

Anthony Greentree

Appropriate passive cooling solutions will vary by context. In more temperate climates, for instance, it might not make sense to install passive cooling technologies in all homes, but rather to install them in a centralized room at a community center, where neighbors can congregate in the event of a heat wave.

Communal space or routines that bring communities together in the event of a heat wave can also strengthen social infrastructure. During the 1995 Chicago Heat Wave, residents in low-income black neighborhoods with vibrant social networks fared as well as affluent white neighborhoods.[6] Furthermore, elderly people are far more likely to survive heat events if they know their neighbors, who can check in on them.[7] Social cohesion is arguably just as important as cooling technologies and resilient electrical grids.

Cooling solutions, which strengthen community connections, have the capacity to instill environmental justice, break the cycle of poverty, and even the impact of climate change among income brackets.

[1] EPA, 2016, Heat-Related Deaths.

[2] EPA, 2016, Climate Change Indicators: High and Low Temperatures.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC’s Tracking Network in Action: Extreme Heat.

[5] Climate Nexus, How Extreme Heat & Heatwaves Impact Public Health.

[6] New Yorker, Adaptation.

[7] CITYLAB, How to Survive a Heat Wave.