Community-Informed Heat Relief: Policy Options for Addressing Urban Extreme Heat in High-Risk Communities

June 30, 2021

Extreme heat causes more deaths than any other weather-related hazard. This public health threat will only worsen as climate change leads to more frequent and intense heat waves — especially in cities, which often record higher temperatures than surrounding areas. Due to the legacy of racially discriminatory redlining practices and long-term lack of investment in their communities, people of color in these urban areas are disproportionately exposed to high temperatures and suffer greater consequences.

To help policymakers and communities address this public health threat, the Georgetown Climate Center is releasing Community-Informed Heat Relief: Policy Options for Addressing Urban Extreme Heat in High-Risk Communities to inform a new comprehensive heat plan currently being developed by the District of Columbia, and to serve as a resource for other cities impacted by urban extreme heat. When it is complete, DC’s plan will direct District government agencies on how best to aid frontline communities and populations most at-risk during extreme heat crises.

To ensure that the policy options included in the report reflect community members' experiences and insights about what approaches are best-suited to meet their needs, GCC, the DC Department of Energy and Environment (DC DOEE), and project partners worked directly with community members and DC local service providers — groups and organizations who work directly with communities most susceptible to heat-related challenges — to craft the report’s recommendations.

Because the Covid-19 pandemic ruled out in-person community meetings in 2020, GCC and DC DOEE worked with service providers to organize virtual convenings and conversations with community leaders and residents of the most heat-affected wards, as well as seniors, public housing residents, and those who have experienced or are experiencing homelessness to engage in virtual discussions. Three subsequent virtual community conversations were held to discuss planning, investments, and policy decisions that affect health outcomes and the degree of health inequities.

Informed by these discussions, the report highlights community input, relevant case studies, and specific policy options that local governments could adopt or expand to better serve residents in times of extreme heat. Examples include:

  • Education and outreach to ensure that residents, especially those who are most susceptible to the effects of extreme heat, have the information and tools needed to take advantage of city programs and services related to heat mitigation (including phone calls, text alerts, community meetings, “buddy” or check-in programs, and heat ambassador teams); 
  • Cooling centers, or locations that are open to the public and specifically designated as a safe space where individuals can go to escape extreme heat, including air-conditioned community centers, libraries, and outdoor areas with cover;
  • Expanding access to air conditioning through programs that provide the most at-risk individuals with air conditioning units, fans, and/or assistance paying for the costs of running air conditioners;
  • Greening initiatives that increase greenspace through parks, urban trees, gardens, and more to increase shade, decrease temperatures, and provide community benefit; and
  • Interactive heat maps and other communications tools that help inform policymaking, identify areas and people at greatest risk, and inform the public on ways to stay safe during high heat days.

Urban extreme heat is a serious and urgent public health threat. To learn more about this issue and potential solutions, read the full report here.

Additional questions can be directed to lead author, GCC Institute Associate Kate McCormick (Katherine.McCormick@georgetown.edu). GCC would like to thank former Executive Director Vicki Arroyo and former Institute Associate Tiffany Ganthier for their work in organizing the convenings.