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Taking action at the neighborhood level is one of the most effective ways to address safety and quality of life in communities hit hardest by extreme heat, according to a recent paper published in Cities, a peer-reviewed academic journal.

As part of the project, a coalition of community-based organizations, Arizona State University researchers, county health officials and the Nature Conservancy worked together to build heat action plans for three of the hottest neighborhoods in Phoenix.  

The paper gave equal weight to the voices of the people living in the hottest neighborhoods and the unique concerns they have related to heat in their everyday life. The project brought together heat experts and community leaders to identify and develop strategies for addressing heat in those neighborhoods.

The unique partnership was intended to level the playing field between lived experience and scientific study, leading to a better understanding of how best to address heat in specific areas, whether by prioritizing more trees along walking corridors or investing in community gardens. 

“We didn’t want to walk in and say ‘Hi we’re doing a research study and will you be our victims?’” said Melissa Guardaro, the paper’s lead author and assistant research professor with ASU’s Healthy Urban Environments Initiative. “We approached this very differently from the way we usually approach climate action.”

Through a series of workshops and demonstrations, the “Nature’s Cooling Systems” project aimed to identify specific barriers to mitigating and adapting to urban heat in different neighborhoods.

‘The right people in the room’

The paper identified three of the hottest neighborhoods in metro Phoenix: the Edison-Eastlake neighborhood in central Phoenix, the Water Tower Improvement District in west Mesa and the Lindo-Roesley neighborhood in south Phoenix.

All three of the neighborhoods have largely Latino and Black populations. Those residents are still dealing with the legacy of decades-old discriminatory policies that created a disparity in investments in infrastructure, green spaces and other amenities compared to predominantly white communities.

For example, the Edison-Eastlake neighborhood in central Phoenix, which encompasses the largest concentration of public housing in the city, has only 5.3% tree coverage, compared to a Maricopa County average of 8.8% and Phoenix metropolitan area average of 13%, according to the paper.

“I think the difference with this study is that it was a very intersectional conversation,” said Masavi Perea, coalitions and training director with Chispa, an environmental group that advocates for Latino communities. Perea was heavily involved in organizing community meetings and engagement in the Lindo-Roesley neighborhood in south Phoenix.

Working directly with community organizations on projects like this is a fairly new approach, said Nancy Grimm, an ASU climate scientist and co-author of the paper.

“I really think the big lesson we took away from this is developing a partnership with these community-based programs is hugely important,” Grimm said.  “Having somebody who knows the community, works with the community and can help us to get the right people in the room was a really important lesson for us.”

Investment in more green space

Perea said when researchers go into communities, they often want to prove something a community already knows.

“But the question that communities need answered is, ‘what are we going to do about it?’ And on this project, that was a dynamic.” Perea said.

Emma Cordova stands near Sherman Parkway in her South Phoenix neighborhood, where temperatures are often hotter than other nearby areas. (Photo: Nick Oza/The Republic)

Through extensive workshops presented in English and Spanish, community partners like Perea were able to bring residents to the table and extend trust to scientists and city and county officials to develop concrete actions that everyone could agree on.

“This was a win-win project,” Perea said. “The researchers got their info, the government entities got involved and connected with community, and the community had a lot of questions answered.”

HOTTER: Climate change, heat island take a deadly toll in Phoenix

One result was a decision to invest in further developing a once-vacant lot in south Phoenix that residents noticed was especially hot in the summer. For years, grassroots organizations have been tending to a community garden in this lot, called Spaces of Opportunity. This project spurred more investment in the green space.

“We found a beautiful place that the community already respects, and now that place is going to look more beautiful,” Perea said.

Three unique heat plans

Unlike traditional scientific papers, the Nature’s Cooling Systems project used storytelling and lived experience as a cornerstone of the project in conjunction with evidence-based research to understand the current and future urban heat challenges facing residents.

“Storytelling was consciously chosen to honor different forms of expertise, facilitate understanding of complex ideas, and level the playing field between residents, organizations, and experts,” the paper said.

The Salvation Army has opened heat-relief stations across the Valley, while following CDC guidelines. (Photo: Courtesy of Scott Johnson)

The Phoenix Revitalization Corporation, a nonprofit group that has worked to address blight and enhance assets in underserved neighborhoods across the region since the 1980s, was another community-based organization that engaged residents from the Eastlake-Edison neighborhood in central Phoenix.

“Ultimately we felt like this was a good project because we were very clear on our intentions: This isn’t just a project we’re going to do to help your scientist figure out if it’s a hot neighborhood,” said Jessica Bueno, the organization’s director of Community Programs.

“We know it’s a hot neighborhood,” she said. “We didn’t want the project to only help one party, but it has to help the community that is being impacted and studied. So I think the team in general really learned how to approach different neighborhoods. The strategies in Edison-Eastlake aren’t going to be the same in south Phoenix.”

HOTTER: Phoenix will feel extreme heat more often in the future

The result was three heat action plans that reflected each neighborhood’s unique priorities and histories, far beyond the “typical heat mitigation recommendations of adding more shade, installing cool or green roofs, and using ‘cooler’ materials,” the paper said.

For example, while all communities wanted more trees and shade within their neighborhoods, some prioritized walking paths to public transportation nodes and others prioritized routes where children are walking to school.

Matching solutions to needs

Researchers built maps of hot spots in each neighborhood using temperature data and insight from residents. These maps will help policymakers understand the local concerns of each neighborhood and assist in adjusting existing heat mitigation strategies, such as the City of Phoenix Tree and Shade Master plan, to better fit the needs of individual neighborhoods. 

“Our high-level discussions about tree planting have to get mapped down to the scale of individual city blocks and streets for them to be meaningful, so I think this is absolutely the type of work that is essential to match solutions to needs,” said David Hondula, an ASU heat researcher and co-author of the paper.

“One of the parts of the process that really resonated with me is the shift in the dialogue in our meetings from one that started, for many residents, with a sense that the state of heat in Phoenix and in their neighborhoods and lives was poor and unchangeable,” Hondula added.

HOTTER: Heat will become a major global killer

“As we progressed through the workshops, we saw more curiosity, interest, optimism and a willingness to seek change in that the way it is now doesn’t necessarily have to be the future,” he said.

Talking about extreme heat can be difficult when it’s perceived as the norm for living in the middle of the desert. Many residents who are most affected often don’t have time to advocate for increasing shade or water access in their communities, or they figure there’s nothing they can do.

While COVID-19 sidetracked many of the action items identified for each neighborhood in the paper, the desire for change hasn’t been quelled.

“Every day we see it’s getting hotter and hotter and hotter, but a lot of people don’t see climate change, they see it as political. Are we denying this is happening or is this God willing?” said Perea. “We need to put a sense of urgency on these issues because people are dying, people are suffering. We need to find the balance.

“The community is ready to proceed working.”

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Erin Stone covers the environment for The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com. Send her story tips and ideas at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @Erstone7.

Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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