Urban heat islands — not without solutions

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part package. In part one: hear from scientists and those living in inner cities about the negative impacts of the urban heat island effect.

When Andy Savastino arrives at work in the heart of Kansas City, he can feel it clear as day: downtown’s heat swelters in comparison to his backyard in the city’s northern suburbs. 

“I mean, there’s no doubt you can feel it …” Savastino said. “If you are downtown and or within 30 blocks of the city, there’s a noticeable difference in temperature.”

Savastino is the chief environmental officer of Kansas City, which means that for him, the dramatic temperature differences driven by climate change are nothing new in his line of work. Savastino has seen firsthand how climate change affects the city and its people. 

Both extreme temperatures and increased flooding are on the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s list of climate change indicators – these changes are tell-tale signs of greater change in the world.

While the effects associated with heat islands, such as hotter daytime temperatures and diminished nighttime cooling, can be severe from both an urban planning and public health standpoint, solutions are being studied and implemented across Missouri.

For example, one of the options for cooling inner cities is reflective roofs. As Fengpun Sun, a climatologist and researcher at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, noted, most roofs are black, which reflects approximately 20-30% of solar radiation. According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, darker colors reflect less solar radiation and allow a material to convert more radiation into heat. If roofs were white, that roof could reflect up to 80% of solar radiation and reduce the heat in the surrounding area.

In order to prevent heat-related deaths and illnesses, cities across Missouri experiencing the urban heat island, or UHI, effect have adopted new policies and practices to curb the effects of overheating cities. For example, such measures in Kansas City were first proposed in 2006 as part of the city’s Climate Protection Plan. 

Composed of over 80 strategies to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and meet energy efficiency goals, the current plan was approved in 2008. Sections included many solutions to heat islands, such as planting more urban greenery and using efficient building and roof designs, such as green roofs with vegetation or more reflective surfaces that are brighter in color. 

But now, with Kansas City ranking seventh on a list of U.S. cities with the most intense urban heat in a 2014 Climate Central study, the city is modifying its plan to address some of these issues. The first step has been asking communities what they think should be done. 

“Over the past 10 years, the overall temperature globally has been elevated compared to the past several 100 years,” Savastino explained. “So, we’re being prudent; we expect that. It just makes sense to be prepared for the case that, if we’re not able to slow down or change the course of climate change, then we should be resilient.”

Another strategy to reduce the heat island effect that Kansas City is looking into is the city’s tree canopy. According to Savastino, only about 28% of the city has a tree canopy — a percentage that he said is still dropping.

“In terms of urban heat island, they can cool an area 10, 15, 20 degrees fahrenheit with a robust tree canopy,” Savastino said. “We’ve got a separate urban forest master plan. And that particular plan for the city is to try to focus on improving our tree canopy to at least 35%.”

A larger urban canopy would help cool the city because, just like cool roofs, trees and greenery reflect more heat than they absorb. Implementing preventative and preservative measures in the cities that need it most is ideal, but it does not mean change will come as easily as listing goals in an action plan. 

“You hear a lot of times people argue about ‘Why should we do this? It costs money to do that or not,’” Savastino said. “In sustainability, you’re not looking at just the economics of it. It’s the environment, the economics and the equity. That’s what makes things sustainable for us.“

Savastino hopes the newest iteration of the climate action plan will reflect the needs of Kansas City’s at-risk citizens and work as a preventative measure against increasingly concerning heat island temperatures. Savastino also emphasized that any progress in reducing heat island effects should be collaborative with the community.

. “So we really, we want to hear the ideas from them, specifically what they feel they need for their community,” Savastino said.

The city of Columbia has also tackled the issue of heat islands. As early as in 2006, Columbia looked into how individuals could  address climate-related issues — ending with 162 actions. According to Columbia’s Director of Sustainability Eric Campbell, the city has broken down major goals into its  own sections and assigned teams of staff to tackle each goal. 

Columbia’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan hopes to implement  the same things as most cities: urban tree coverage, energy efficiency in homes, construction with heat reflection in mind and more. Just like in any other city, though, the reality of renovating climate practices for thousands of residents takes effort.

“Generally, it’s going to be changing how we do what we do,” Campbell said. “And change is difficult. So we knew that it was going to have to be a process that the people who are going to implement it felt connected to.”

Getting that connection can be tricky, especially in larger cities. 

Community-based initiatives in the city’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan are the first step in making the larger set of plans a reality, especially since citizens didn’t end up getting a final say in the plan’s implementation, says St. Louis City’s Sustainability Director Catherine Werner

“Had there been additional time and budget I would have liked to engage members in the community in the (planning) process, but I worked within the constraints of the situation to meet the deadlines of the Compact of Mayors,” Werner said in an email. 

The plan’s urgency came about as  its creation was the product of a recommendation made during the Obama administration to make both a Climate Action and Climate Adaptation Plan. The city of St. Louis had limited capacity to create both separately, so they opted to combine both plans  and work with what they learned from another recommended measure: a climate vulnerability assessment. 

In order to test the waters for possible heat island solutions outlined in the plan, St. Louis conducted small-scale efforts like implementing a grant for those wanting cool roofs and planting trees to increase urban tree coverage.

The grants, which were made possible after the Mayor’s Office held a Sustainable Neighborhood Small Grant Competition, seemed promising. For now, though, implementation remains an issue due to lack of funding. 

“While there are a lot of great examples of both strategies on roofs, at present there is no budget or capacity in the City to oversee or implement these programs,” Werner said.

Solutions like green roofs, increased tree canopy and more reflective surfaces are all necessary to make improvements in current heat islands, but experts emphasize that any solution to heat islands needs to consider the  people most disadvantaged by them.

“The impact of the urban heat island effect will be worse on people with fewer resources,” Campbell said of Columbia. “Unless we can address those differences and resources, whether that’s physical resources of the efficiency of their house, or their ability, their financial resources to pay higher utility bills, it will be worse.”

John and Sarah Price, a low-income, younger couple who lost their beloved dog Charlie due to extreme heat in the Kansas City area, know that their circumstances played a major role in this  tragedy. Sarah has congenital heart disease, which makes it more difficult for her to move around for long periods. Since their AC unit is still broken, they have to run three small fans to keep themselves cool, which increases their utility bills.

“If there’s dangerous temperatures, it’s really, really hard for somebody like me to deal with. And because of being low income and where we live, there’s not a cooling center close,” Sarah said. “And so we just have to do what we can with where we’re at.”

As for other populous Missouri cities, Joplin and Springfield do not have any publicly available plans geared to managing heat islands.

Considering the Prices’ situation, what happens if solutions are not implemented, or if heat islands continue to worsen due to the immediate effects of climate change? 

There are two possible outcomes, according to retired climatologist Jim Angel. The first is what Angel describes as the higher scenario — similar to the status quo.

“Keep burning coal and burning fossil fuels. No checks on population, no real innovation in terms of energy usage and so forth,” Angel said, explaining that with this possible worst case scenario, harmful carbon dioxide levels will keep climbing through the rest of the 21st century.

While it is impossible to definitively know how humans will behave, Angel and his team of colleagues from different universities, federal agencies such as the USDA and NOAA, and non-governmental organizations hypothesized what would happen to the climate if society continued business as usual in the Fourth National Climate Assessment. 

The lower scenario, which the National Climate Assessment team predicts would lead to an average annual 5-day maximum temperature of 102 degrees in southern Missouri is one less than the higher scenario’s prediction of 103 degrees. 

It may only be a single degree difference on the surface, but Angel believes that it shows progress worth pursuing. 

“The fun of those (scenarios) is that you see some pretty big differences between those two,” Angel said. “So it really underscores the benefit of doing these things to reduce greenhouse gas emissions because it makes a huge difference in the Midwest on how livable it’s going to be.” 

Even with ways to reduce the effects of urban heat islands on the population, the community has to be involved for any effort to stand the test of time.

“It takes time to build trust in the community, and to really get them to understand that we need them to tell us what it is that they need,” Savastino said. “We don’t want to come across as we’re going to be telling them what strategies they need for their community — it’s got to be the other way around. So we have to build that layer of trust. And that takes time. It’s going to be an organic process.”

Anna Kutz is a senior at Mizzou studying multimedia journalism. She is passionate about reporting on issues related to the environment and agriculture.

Paul Schloesser graduated from the University of Missouri in May 2021 with bachelor’s degrees in news reporting and political science.

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