October 19, 2022 - From the October, 2022 issue

‘A Silent Killer’: Bloomberg's City Lab on Cities v Heat, Unpacks Extreme Heat Effects & Solutions

Despite it being more than a month since California experienced one of its worst heatwaves of all time, the State is still determining its public health and mortality effects. TPR excerpts from Bloomberg’s CityLab 2022 Summit this panel titled Cities v. Heat moderated by Feargus O’SullivanEleni Myrivili and Marta Segura, Chief Heat Officers of Athens, Greece, and Los Angeles discuss what benefits their unique roles bring to their respective municipalities. They also lay out a series of recommendations for cities to reduce their heat island effect such as shading, incorporating nature into urban design, eliminating cars, and more. For a link to the full day of panels, click here.


“Now, we are just discovering, because [extreme heat] has been the silent climate hazard, the impact it’s had on public health and also on infrastructure.” -Marta Segura

Feargus O’Sullivan: Good morning everyone. I’m Feargus O’Sullivan from Bloomberg City Lab. I’m here with Eleni Myrivili and Marta Segura, who are the Chief Heat Officers for the cities of Athens and Los Angeles. I hope we’re going to be joined by Eugenia Kargbo who is the Chief Heat Officer of Freetown, in Sierra Leone. As you know, we’re a little short for time, so let’s just get to it.

A very fundamental question: why is extreme heat such an important, central issues for cities? We’ll start with you, Marta.

Marta Segura: For Los Angeles, and I think many other cities, extreme heat is the primary climate hazard. Now, we are just discovering, because it has been the silent climate hazard, the impact it’s had on public health and also on infrastructure.

In Los Angeles, UCLA created a heat risk map. We can look ten years back and create a very strong correlation, that’s accepted by the public health standards, that you have more premature deaths and hospitalizations during heatwave events. With that kind of data emerging and these Climate Vulnerability Assessments that cities are doing like Los Angeles, we can better determine how to address extreme heat for cities.

I’ll talk a little bit more about all the tools that we’re using because data and tools are super important. Basically, heat’s impacting infrastructure and it’s impacting public health to such an extent that we need to focus on extreme heat as our primary climate hazard.

Eleni Myrivili: I think still today, very few policymakers and city leaders realize that heat is the number one killer. As Marta said, it’s a silent killer, but of all extreme weather phenomena, we lose more people to heat today. Heat is growing and we know that heat is becoming more and more severe. We’ve been talking about global warming for decades, but we haven’t been focusing on cities and heat.

The data says that, today, there’s about 350 cities that are experiencing temperatures above 35 degrees, which is about 200 million people. In a couple of decades, it’s going to be 1000 that will be dealing with temperatures that our bodies are not made for, which is like 1.6 billion people.

Our cities are not made for dealing with these temperatures. They are temperatures that our bodies are not made for. Our cities are made from the type of materials that just keep heat in. They get hotter. They become more and more dangerous for the people that live in them. They are death traps right now for heat.

As Marta said, the infrastructure and public health, they are these two issues that we really need to focus on because we are losing people and we are losing biodiversity.

Feargus O’Sullivan: How does the role of Chief Heat Officer enable you to do that? What is specific about this role that is really well-targeted to dealing with those circumstances?

Eleni Myrivili: Because heat affects a lot of different functions of a city, you need somebody that can coordinate things. They can talk with people in the health department all the way to the people that work in infrastructure, for example. People who can actually move out and find the stakeholders that are the most important and bring them into the fold and actually have a plan that’s strong enough that can get people more knowledgeable about what’s happening and find ways to actually protect them and also find ways to make cities better for heat. 

Marta Segura: I definitely agree with Eleni. In addition to that, we’re managing a network of plans because we are creating a Climate Vulnerability Assessment, the Heat Action Plan, and those have to align with our Climate Action Plan. The reason they have to align is because they all are addressing the same climate hazards.

In LA, for example, extreme heat is our primary climate hazard. We want all these departments across the City of Los Angeles to be able to follow a roadmap that maximizes our infrastructure investment, that minimizes premature deaths, and that improves the lives of everyday people so that LA remains a habitable city.

We’re including solutions like bus shelters with shade and hydration stations, not just nature-based solutions, but also shade structures because we need to act quickly. LA has a ten year plan to add shade structures, but it’s also about shade equity.

We did a Shade Equity Study and we realized that trees were lacking in the neighborhoods that you would expect: the low-income neighborhoods that have been historically disinvested. There’s an intentional strategy to ensure that we are creating shade equity in those neighborhoods all across Los Angeles.

This network of plans is extremely important. We’re un-siloing, aligning, maximizing resources, really with a collaborative approach because you get more collaboration with honey than force. My approach has always been collaborative.

Eleni Myrivili: I just wanted to say if Eugenia is not joining us, Eugenia in Freetown, Sierra Leone is doing a really important work with shading in areas like marketplaces. Women are very much affected, again, disproportionately by extreme weather phenomena. Eugenia is really working from the bottom-up with the communities in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Also with trees, they have this 1 million trees program that is an investment to make Freetown into Tree-Town, as Mayor Aki-Sawyerr talks about.

         The other thing that I wanted to add is that it is all of us. We’re this group of Chief Heat Officers, of which are one or two per continent. We’re seven now. We are also talking a lot with each other. We are figuring out what each of us is doing, what kinds of tools we can share, what kind approaches there are, and what kind of funding we can figure out working with the resilience sector to help with these kinds of things.

Feargus O’Sullivan: There’s something that I wanted to pick up with you there because you mentioned something very important: that this an environmental issue, but this it’s also a social issue. It tends to be disadvantaged communities everywhere that are most affected. You mentioned increasing shading in low-income areas. Can you give some other examples? 

Marta Segura: In Los Angeles and in California, we’re very lucky that we have this tool called the CalEnviroScreen. It has indicators for social inequities, not just environmental inequities, but it also measures pollution burden. In Los Angeles, we’ve actually determined who are the top 10 percent most pollution-burdened communities that have social inequity issues. It correlates really well with lack of open space, lack of new infrastructure, lack of jobs, lack of green jobs, for sure.

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We want to make sure that we are aligning actually with President Biden’s Justice40 Initiative, which basically states we want cities to invest no less than 40 percent of your infrastructure dollars into these disadvantaged communities that happen to be pollution-burdened and environmental justice communities, so that we can get to a climate plan that works for everyone and actually saves the planet.

We can’t continue to invest in targeted neighborhoods that can afford it. We have to have a substantial, sustainable funding source to invest in these communities so that we can equalize the healthy, thriving communities for all of Los Angeles.

We also have a Social Equity Index in Los Angeles that we’re going to launch. We’re working on the Climate Vulnerability Assessment. I think all cities should do a Climate Vulnerability Assessment. If extreme heat is not a primary issue, you should actually look at it and assess it to see how it’s affecting your infrastructure, how it’s affecting your public health.

In Los Angeles, again, I want to say UCLA’s work was able to demonstrate to us that we were really not recognizing that extreme heat, when we had these heat waves, was affecting these communities. Now these heat waves are longer in duration, increasing in frequency, and now they happen in June through mid-November, and then it comes back in February and March. Now, we have a heat season, not just summertime, where we have some heat waves, which means our bodies don’t recover, which exposes people more to heat injury.

Feargus O’Sullivan: Because we’re a little bit tight, I want to go onto, obviously, what you’re all trying to do is prepare your cities for these periods of extreme heat that are becoming greater. What does that preparedness look like and what are your criteria for being prepared?

Eleni Myrivili: The way that I kind of figured out how to approach the whole thing is to think of it in three different pillars.

The first pillar is awareness-raising. What we’re doing in Athens and Seville and four cities in the States, we’re piloting for the first time, which I think is one of the things that we can do which is really a game-changer, is categorizing heat waves, which is something we haven’t done up to now. Categorizing heat waves and naming them can really make a big difference in how people understand them and understand how dangerous they are.

The type of categorizing that we are doing actually brings in the health risk. It’s not just meteorological data, but we’re putting health data and mortality data to make sure that each category actually talks specifically about how dangerous each event will be. Other things can also fit under the awareness category.

Then, the second category in my mind is the preparedness. As you said, it is how do you make sure that during heatwaves you protect the most vulnerable populations? You have to figure out, as Marta said, where is your vulnerability in the city. As she said, in almost every city in the world, the neighborhoods and the areas that are the least socio-economically viable are the ones that are the most vulnerable to extreme heat and all extreme weather events. We really have to focus there and make sure that you have people checking on people. The social fabric and how different neighborhoods can support each other is the most important thing. You have to make sure you feed that capacity in neighborhoods.

That’s along with other issues like apps and early warning systems and things like places for people to go and maps to facilities. There’s a whole slew of things that cities are doing already to make sure that they are protecting the most vulnerable during heat waves.

The final pillar is that we have to redesign our cities and bring much more nature into them, like getting rid of cars, which is a very big. It’s the big fight that the Mayors have to do. It takes a lot of guts to do it, I know, but we have to get rid of cars, bring a lot of nature into the city to lower temperatures, and bring a lot of water elements to the surface.

Permeable surfaces and different other materials and technologies can also lower surface temperatures.

Buildings, when you do energy upgrades, you have to do thermal upgrades as well, which is a little more expensive with shading and trees. I’ll stop there.

Think of mitigation together with adaptation. We can’t keep keeping them separate; we have to put them together.

Marta Segura: I’ll give a couple of examples. One surprise I had, because I am LA’s Climate Director as well and then I was recently designated Chief Heat Officer, now that I am working closely with the Emergency Management Department, is they have a whole emergency operation system in place, but it wasn’t revolving around climate and definitely not revolving around extreme heat.

We’re shifting the paradigm about how we address these incidents through the emergency response protocol at City of LA. That would not have happened, had we not had a Chief Heat Officer, because climate and the Emergency Management Department were just not connecting. Now, we’re connecting at every level.

We’re preparing because we can anticipate a heatwave. We’re preparing in advance. Do we have the fire power? Do we have police power? Do we have the public works power?

More than anything, I’m putting public health at the top of the assessment so we can then allocate the resources to the vulnerable communities that I was mentioning earlier. That’s an example of how being a Chief Heat Officer is different than being a Climate Director because we’re forced to be in each other’s space, and that’s a very good thing.

I was going to talk a little more about the urban heat island and the heat dome, but I think we’re running out of time.

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© 2022 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.