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ASU helps Phoenix refine its first HeatReady program

City's proposal to help local governments prepare for the dangers of urban heat made it a finalist in the 2018 Mayors Challenge


March 27, 2018

Phoenix was recently named as a finalist in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ 2018 Mayors Challenge on the strength of its proposal for a first-of-its-kind "HeatReady" program.

The program is expected to help the city of Phoenix and other local governments holistically manage how they identify, prepare for, mitigate, track and respond to the dangers of urban heat during the hot summer months.

Phoenix and 34 other Mayors Challenge finalist cities are now in the process of testing and refining their proposals, with a winner being announced in October. The winning city will be awarded $5 million to implement a scaled-up version of its solution; four other cities will receive $1 million each.

Assisting in the HeatReady endeavor is David Hondula, an assistant professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning and a member of ASU’s Urban Climate Research CenterThe Urban Climate Research Center employs a collaborative social/physical science framework to address critical issues in the urban atmospheric environment. It is affiliated with the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning and the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability.. He told ASU Now the danger of urban heat is more than physical; it could possibly “constrain economic opportunities when it comes to the long-term prosperity for the city.”

Man in glasses and maroon and gold tie

David Hondula

Question: HeatReady is a new idea. Does Phoenix not have any heat policies already in place?

Answer: It’s a good question and one that is asked a lot. There are many successful initiatives that the city has undertaken both itself and collaboratively with other cities and health authorities. It is very possible through this process we will discover Phoenix is very “heat ready,” but also learn new ways to combat heat in the city. We think the Bloomberg project will give us an opportunity to think systematically about all of those strategies and understand and measure where we are in our heat preparedness. There’s not an existing tool, framework or mechanism by which we can evaluate where we are and can identify where our opportunities are for improvement.

Q: What role will ASU play in this project?

A: ASU and the city of Phoenix will be working together on developing what we are currently calling the framework for the HeatReady program. We’re imagining a program that would be similar in ways to the StormReady program the National Weather Service operates.

The StormReady program targets readiness for flash floods, storms, hurricanes and other rapid-onset events. When cities participate in StormReady, they complete an application collaboratively with the National Weather Service office to ensure the lines of communication are open during weather warnings to ensure that emergency operation centers are identified, points of contact are documented and certain infrastructure and equipment are available. Once the city completes this application and it is reviewed by the National Weather Service, they can become certified as StormReady. We are imagining a similar program for community heat readiness and preparedness. ASU students, faculty and staff from many different schools will be involved in helping craft this program — we have an incredible network of people who study and are passionate about developing solutions for urban heat.  

Q: What are some of the obvious (and not-so-obvious) dangers of urban heat?

A: Heat is an immediate health threat to residents and visitors of Phoenix and the other cities in Maricopa County, and throughout much of the Southwest. Sadly, we have upwards of a hundred people who die of heat-related causes in an average year, and thousands of cases of heat-related illness. In 2016 the Maricopa County Department of Health reported a record number of 150 heat-related deaths, well above the previous high of 107.

Long-term impacts and not-so-obvious dangers of urban heat that are of concern include respiratory and cardiovascular disease. But I think even more interesting from a health perspective is the potential reduction of physical activity in the warm season. If we do not successfully address the heat challenge, it could constrain economic opportunities when it comes to the long-term prosperity for the city. If there is a perception that Phoenix is too hot of a place to live or conduct productive business, that might jeopardize some investments in our region. Fortunately, our current indicators don’t suggest that’s the case whatsoever. Phoenix is booming and thriving, and there are many construction projects and other exciting developments all around. We want to stay on top of the heat challenge so that our growth and economic stability continue.

Q: What are some things in the proposal that can mitigate heat?

A: In terms of mitigation, we are thinking about both keeping the city cool and making sure people have access to the right resources to cope with heat in their daily lives. The city of Phoenix and other Valley cities have fairly aggressive greening goals that could have an impact in reducing the air temperature in the city but, even more importantly, improve the thermal experience as people go through their day-to-day lives. Phoenix is seeking to double its tree canopy. We’ve found that additional vegetation in the urban environment will help keep air temperatures down slightly, but the real benefit of those trees is more shade people can use as they are walking around. The city is also looking at different strategies for the materials for our buildings, our roads, our parking lots and other surfaces, experimenting with materials that are more reflective and help stop heat from being trapped near the surface.

The other side of the challenge is adapting to heat, especially in terms of the actions that happen at the personal and household scale. We know that residents want more information about how to use the thermostat most effectively, for example. We also want to be sure that residents and visitors are aware of public resources including cooling centers and energy assistance programs — and to be sure that those programs are operating as effectively as possible. Public participation in building our adaptation strategies is essential, and many ASU researchers are involved in efforts to understand the community voice and community needs.

Q: Even if Phoenix does not win the grant, will ASU continue to work with Phoenix on these strategies?

A: We are very motivated to continue building the concept of a HeatReady program for Phoenix regardless of the outcome of the Bloomberg project. Of course, we’re going to try our best to win. We think the ball is rolling and cannot be stopped.  

Top photo by ASU Now

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