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Virtually every city in America is a heat island. Here's how one is finding its voice

Heat island - birds
Posted at 7:38 AM, Dec 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-07 16:44:35-05

MESA, Ari. — It might seem strange to have a chat about heat at the start of the night … and not in the summer, but early December.

For David Martinez, the timing is perfect, because he knows it’s not permanent.

“That heat ends up coming," Martinez said, "and once it’s here, it really takes a lot out of you.”

Martinez’ neighborhood in Mesa, Arizona is part of a heat island. In a region known for triple-digit temps, his area is among those hit hardest, even this time of year. Trees are sparse. Sidewalks aren’t shaded. And too often, the community goes unheard.

“A lot of the kids, after they get dropped off by the bus, they still have to walk from Point A to Point B," Martinez said. “A lot of areas outside of here have really nice bus stops. Here you can tell there’s not a lot put into it.”

In metropolitan Phoenix, heat can surface in December. But heat islands exist everywhere. A new study by Climate Central found cities like Baltimore, Cleveland, and Detroit – cool-weather cities with still-brutal summers – have among the most intense heat islands in the country. Within cities, the differences can be even greater.

“For some people, heat is an inconvenience," said Dr. David Hondula of Arizona State. “For others, heat is a catastrophic risk. There are serious and tangible risks to some individuals in our community that their health will be compromised, their livability will be compromised.”

Hondula helped organize the Nature’s Cooling Systems project, leading community discussions in three Phoenix-area hot spots. In Edison-Eastlake, pavements can reach upwards of 150 degrees in the summer. In Mesa Care, residents spoke of after-school walking routes in need of shade. In Roesley Park, they cited high electric bills, vacant lots, and a simple lack of investment.

Masavi Perea led the way in the Roesley Park Area.

“I told them, ‘Hey, let’s work about the heat. What do you think about the heat?’" he said. "And they would say, ‘Well, we live in the desert, south Phoenix, it is what it is.’ Unfortunately many people have lost hope of government, and they don’t trust government.”

That’s the challenge. Projects produce reports, sketches, hopes and plans to make things better. Then priorities change. A pandemic happens. And solutions stay on the shelf.

“I think when we look all across the country at underserved communities, the conversation between City Hall and those neighborhoods has not been as vibrant or productive as it could have been," Hondula said.

But now, Hondula works in City Hall, for Phoenix's newly created Office of Heat Response and Mitigation.

“Phoenix created the first in the nation," said Mayor Kate Gallego. “We have to go to our residents and say, ‘Here’s what we’re accomplishing for you.’”

“Our office is charged to think about the heat problem as an equity one," Hondula said. “The scale of resources that we're going to need to pull together to move the needle on some of these huge challenges. It just is a little intimidatingly large.”

A new office and officeholder do not by themselves create change. The next few years will be a test. The seeds have been planted.

But for David Martinez and so many, the sun and the summer always loom.

“I know, eventually, it’s gonna end up coming back," he said. "I mean, it’s really beautiful now, but, you know, we live here in Arizona, so we know what to expect and what’s coming.”