Inside Philadelphia’s inequitable, deadly heat

According to Philadelphia’s heat-vulnerability index, Hunting Park is one of the hottest neighborhoods in the city, and one of the most vulnerable to heat's negative effects.

Ana Marrero, Milagros Soto, and Pablo Cuevas catching a cool breeze on the stoop of their home in Hunting Park. (Catalina Jaramillo/WHYY News)

Ana Marrero, Milagros Soto, and Pablo Cuevas catching a cool breeze on the stoop of their home in Hunting Park. (Catalina Jaramillo/WHYY News)

This story originally appeared on PlanPhilly.

It was 85 degrees Monday afternoon in Hunting Park. Milagros Soto and Pablo Cuevas were sitting on their stoop, catching a breeze.

“The heat is too hot,” said Soto, 36, who has asthma and no air conditioner. Cuevas, 52, who lives with her and suffers from Parkinson’s disease, was bare-chested. A box fan sat in the window of their apartment, on the first floor of a three-story brick rowhouse on West Erie Avenue.

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“I can’t afford one,” Soto said, meaning an air conditioner and pointing to the window. “So we sit out here, and I have to get him in cold showers at least five or six times a day. And I live in front of my fan. Or we put the manguera [hose] and fill in the swimming pool there, or we just water ourselves with the manguera.”

According to Philadelphia’s heat-vulnerability index, which overlays temperature data with sociodemographic and health data, Hunting Park is one of the hottest neighborhoods in the city — and also one of the most vulnerable to the negative effects of heat.

Temperatures here — and in other areas of North Philadelphia near industry, highways, and few if any green areas — can climb up to 22 degrees Fahrenheit higher than in leafier neighborhoods in the northwest part of the city, data collected from 2013 to 2015 show.

“It’s a neighborhood with a long history of industry, there’s a lot of pavement, there’s aging housing infrastructure with lots of black rooftops [which absorb heat], and also if you look at maps of tree canopy, there are many fewer trees in this part of town,” said Sophie Sarkar, who is developing strategies with the Office of Sustainability to help residents of heat-vulnerable neighborhoods cope.

Many of Hunting Park’s residents don’t have air conditioners, or if they do, they ration their use to avoid big electric bills. The neighborhood is mostly Hispanic and African American (56 and 38 percent, according to the 2010  U.S. Census), and has one of the lowest median incomes, rates of employment, and levels of education in the city.

Philadelphia’s Office of Emergency Management recommends that those with no air conditioning, adults over 65 years old, children under 4, and people with existing medical conditions stay cool by going to “cooling centers” —  air-conditioned public spaces that may offer extended hours during heat emergencies. But Hunting Park has no active cooling center, though the neighborhood has high rates of asthma, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and mental illness.

The Office of Sustainability’s Christine Knapp said that when heat and sociodemographic data were overlapped, revealing that the most vulnerable neighborhoods were also the poorest — Hunting Park, Point Breeze in South Philadelphia, and parts of Haddington and Cobbs Creek in West Philadelphia — it became very clear that equity in the way the city has historically distributed its resources was at the heart of the issue.

“All the red neighborhoods are minority-majority areas, so it begs that question: How did we get into this situation? Looking at the city’s racial history of redlining — to have people living near industries or near highways that were not desirable, the political history of not being able to provide investments into their parks or other community investments — that’s the big connection here. This is too perfectly aligned with racial demographics to be have been accidental.”

Knapp thinks it’s time for the city to change policies that continue this trend, especially because climate projections suggest that by the end of the century Philadelphia “may experience four to 10 times as many days per year above 95 degrees Fahrenheit, and as many as 16 days a year above 100 degrees Fahrenheit,” up from the 1950-1999 average of fewer than one.

More of these hot days may arrive together as heat waves, the climate projections suggest, increasing the risk of such related health problems as dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke.

“That can be particularly deadly and dangerous for our residents if we don’t really start taking this seriously and understanding what do people need to do to cope with heat, and what can we do to make it less hot,” said Knapp.

In the last 10 years, there have been 104 heat-related deaths in Philadelphia, according to the Department of Public Health, the most recent one occurring this month. But according to James Garrow, a spokesman for the Health Department, “deaths that are considered heat-related are the product of … investigation and pathologist examination and are not simply yes-or-no heat-related definition,” so that definition varies. A recent study by Columbia University scientists projects that the number of heat-related deaths in New York could rise from an average of 638 between 2000 and 2006 to as many as 3,331 a year or fall as low as 167 a year by the 2080s, depending on adaptation strategies.

To start preparing, the city and some North Philly partners are launching a nine-month pilot program in Hunting Park called “Beat the Heat” to understand how residents are coping with heat, what can be done to help them in the short term, and which interventions they would like to see implemented to cool the neighborhood in the long term.

“I would like them to put more trees and pools,” Soto said from her stoop.

“Oh yes, more trees,” her neighbor Ana Marrero said in Spanish. “That’s what we asked the landlord to do, but they say no, what for?”

In 2012, the tree-canopy coverage was just 3.6 percent in a portion of Hunting Park (roughly bounded by Front and Ninth Streets, Mentor and Luzerne Streets, and Roosevelt Boulevard) studied by the city in developing a strategic plan for the neighborhood.

Gabriella Gabriel Paez, education and community-development coordinator at Esperanza, a nonprofit organization in North Philadelphia teaming up with the city on the pilot program, said that although in the last three years the organization has given 700 trees to neighbors for planting, there is still a need for more.

Why not just plant more trees and activate a cooling center to start with? Gabriel Paez said it is crucial not to assume which the best solutions are, but instead engage with neighbors first to truly understand what’s happening.

“They are the experts, they are living in this situation,” she said. “We might have an idea [of what to do], but you would be surprised by the feedback we can get about what the neighbors think we can do. By letting the residents drive and inform the process, we can get it right the first time.”

For Michelle B. Taylor, director of community partnerships and strategy for North10 Philadelphia, a community organization working in Hunting Park and East Tioga, the process will also be important in educating people how to stay cool on extremely hot days.

“I don’t think that people are aware that this is one of the hottest neighborhoods in the city, and when you tell people that, they’re kind of shocked,” Taylor said. “So I think people adapt to it and get used to it, and try to find the coolest place they can.”

Anita Webb, a 51-year-old Hunting Park resident with diabetes, said she tries to stay in the house when it’s really hot out. “But if I got to go out and we’re having a heat wave, I make sure I have water with me all the times —  I think that’s the only thing you can do.”

When she lived up in Germantown, Webb said, there was a tree in front of her house, so it was cool when she sat underneath it. Now, she just sits on her porch.

“If you have more trees, it’s cooler,” she said while knitting an African blanket. “Now, it’s getting hotter all the time. It’s too hot. It’s like fall doesn’t come any more. Like by September, October, it will still be hot. Where’s fall?”

On hot days, Mo Sadler, 39, tries not to move a lot. He said he checks on older neighbors to see they’re OK and make sure their air conditioners are working well.

“It’s getting hotter every year, and a lot of people don’t want to think that global warming is the cause of it. My opinion? It is,” Sadler said. “We are doing something that is making this happen.”

This article has been updated to correct the tree-canopy figure and to clarify the portion of Hunting Park studied to achieve that number.

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