Philly debuts community-driven plan to beat rising temperatures

Volunteers working with a city Tree Tenders group plant trees in Hunting Park. (City of Philadelphia)

Volunteers working with a city Tree Tenders group plant trees in Hunting Park. (City of Philadelphia)

This article originally appeared on PlanPhilly.

Nine-year-old Kha’mile Martin lives in one of Philadelphia’s hottest neighborhoods — Hunting Park. Although this section of the city is named after a tree-filled park, Martin’s block of colorful rowhomes offers little in terms of shade.

Sweltering summer days typically mean Martin won’t get as much outdoor playtime to avoid triggering his asthma. The temperature on his block is about 22 degrees higher than in greener and more affluent areas of the city.

“I need to be in the house because sometimes my nose be bleeding when it get hot,” he said. “When I get hot sometimes my chest start getting, like I need to take my pump.”

Martin said during heat waves, like the one that scourged the city over the weekend, he stays “under the air conditioning and fans,” and tries to take care of his health by drinking lots of cold water. But staying at home might not be the best for Martin, according to a first-ever city plan for addressing health risks related to the heat.

The new heat relief plan, created in partnership with Hunting Park residents and local organizations, is the result of a year-long neighborhood-based pilot program.

The goal was to understand how people in the community are coping with extreme heat and identify tools to help improve outcomes. Planting trees and adding cooling centers were some of the expected findings, but city officials learned it takes more than that.

“The city putting out a press release or just putting something on a website isn’t enough. It’s not enough for a utility to say, ‘Oh, we have these programs.’ We really have to be figuring out new strategies for getting that information to the communities that need them the most,” said Christine Knapp, director of the city’s office of sustainability.

One finding was that about 80% of Martin’s neighbors still feel too hot in their homes during heat waves. And that’s not because they don’t have air conditioners. About 60% of the 530 residents who answered the survey said they always use the AC when it’s very hot outside and only 5% said they didn’t have one.

“We really want to get folks out of their homes, if we can, and to a place where they can cool down,” said Knapp.

Where they should go is an open question that city officials are still working to answer, one of several addressed in the new plan.

During extreme heat events, the city recommends 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.

Spencmecia Merceir, 62, said her closest recreation center is about a 10-minute walk, not an easy trip for a lot of her neighbors who are senior citizens and have trouble with mobility.

“How many senior citizens with canes and [

who are] crippled can walk over there?” Merceir said.

(City of Philadelphia)

Listening to the neighborhood to learn what works

On really sweaty days, most of the English-speaking Hunting Park residents go to the neighborhood’s 87-acre park, according to the city plan. Spanish-speaking residents prefer spraygrounds or a pool, but many said they avoid the neighborhood’s pool because it’s always packed.

“There is an overcrowding of the few neighborhood cooling resources (such as the Hunting Park pool) that are available to area residents both young and old,” said Michael Wilcox, coordinator of Hunting Park Community Garden, according to the plan.

To tackle this, the city wants to turn 25 community spaces — schools, organizations, and churches — into cooling centers that could operate on heat health emergency days. Knapp said some of them are ready to begin operating this summer thanks to work the city is doing.

But according to the plan, having cooling centers in the area won’t necessarily solve the problem. Almost half of the English-speaking residents and one-fourth of the Latinos don’t even know that cooling centers are available in other parts of the city.

Residents were not familiar with other city assistance programs as well. Only 6% of the Hispanic neighbors, which are 56% of the residents of Hunting Park, knew about the city’s free-tree program TreePhilly. Less than 15% of the neighborhood’s residents knew about heat emergency systems run by the city, such as ReadyPhiladelphia or the heatline.

Merceir said the city needs to have more programs to give senior citizens discounts on their electric bills, especially during the summer.

“I’m scared of my electric bill,” she said. About one-fourth of the residents participating in the plan agreed. But less than 50% of the residents in the plan knew about the existing utility assistance programs.

Knapp said that highlights a problem in the way the city is communicating with its residents.

David Ortiz is the vice president for Housing and Economic Development at Esperanza, a Hispanic organization in Hunting Park that worked on the heat plan. He said one of the biggest values of the city’s first community heat plan was letting people know what’s available to them.

One of the reasons residents in his neighborhood don’t take advantage of available programs, Ortiz said, is because many of them are immigrants, some of them without legal status, and they are afraid to reach out to the city.

“A lot of residents aren’t aware, or completely aware, of something simple like white-coating on a roof can dramatically lower energy cost. So there’s an educational component —  when folks come out to the workshops or activities they can learn about these simple and not always expensive ways to counteract the effects of extreme heat events,” Ortiz said.

The plan also recommends ways to green the neighborhood, such as targeting street tree planting and green stormwater infrastructure projects on the hottest blocks and around schoolyards, industrial, and commercial sites; creating gardens and parks on vacant lots; and more training and educational material in Spanish.


Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.