It’s summer, the mercury is rising, and it’s only getting hotter from here on out. In response to the imminent risks of warmer temperatures, New York City is on a mission to combat climate change through architecture. Its latest initiative? Tackling extreme heat by redesigning its roofs and its streets.
While N.Y.C. has focused a lot of its resiliency efforts on flooding and storms, which happen sporadically, extreme heat is actually one of the deadliest risks from climate change and one of the most pressing challenges. So, earlier this month, Mayor Bill De Blasio announced Cool Neighborhoods NYC: a $106 million dollar plan that involves coating roofs with reflective paint (also known as cool roofs), planting trees, and conducting community outreach in the city’s most heat-vulnerable neighborhoods–which are also some of its most impoverished.
The program expands on existing cool-roof and tree-planting programs, but it targets neighborhoods with a high heat-vulnerability index (HVI) in particular. HVI is a metric that measures how likely people are to die during heat waves by analyzing socioeconomic and spatial characteristics like median income, race, density, and ratio of trees to concrete. The poorest neighborhoods have fewer trees and higher rates of disease (like high blood pressure and heart disease) than wealthier neighborhoods–factors that contributes to heat susceptibility. Northern Manhattan, the South Bronx, and central Brooklyn have the highest HVI, and will receive additional funding for greenery and cool roofs, which can lower building temperatures by 30% during hot days and lower air conditioning costs by 10% to 30%.
“Green space is not equitably distributed across the city, and some of the most vulnerable populations may not have adequate access to cool or green spaces where they can escape high and extreme heat,” the mayor’s office wrote in a report about the program. “Linking vulnerable and high-risk populations to strategies for green infrastructure and other nature-based solutions is critical for increasing equity and addressing environmental justice in the city.”
Better urban design is a central part of the plan, too. The report mentions that more inviting, welcoming streetscapes–such as planted medians and traffic islands, sidewalks with trees and rain gardens that help with stormwater infiltration, and bike lanes–reduce the amount of dark asphalt that exacerbates the heat-island effect.
In addition to physical interventions, the plan also calls for new programs to target vulnerable populations. For example, one section details training for home health aids on heat-related climate risks. Another, Be A Buddy NYC, is a community initiative that involves neighbors checking in on older individuals to make sure they’re okay. Meanwhile, the program will also revamp its signage to increase awareness about the city’s cooling centers and work with local media to broadcast PSAs about heat risks. Lastly, the plan calls for more investment in data collection technology to better understand heat in the city at the neighborhood level.
While the details in Cool Neighborhoods NYC aren’t new techniques, they’re far from standard operating procedure. That New York City is implementing them strategically and at scale might signal the normalization of these tactics elsewhere. Reducing energy use and carbon emissions isn’t on a single city or entity; it’s on all of us. Cool roofs and trees for all? Perhaps one day.