First comes the heat, then comes the worry. For Neris Amaya, rising temperatures can feel like an existential threat. There’s her 95-year-old father, whose high blood pressure and heart condition make him particularly vulnerable, and her kids and grandkids, all of whom have asthma that seems to worsen as temperatures climb.
On Monday, as the air conditioners in her three-family home in Chelsea struggled to keep up and cool was hard to come by, Leandro, her 4-year-old grandson, had to be rushed to the hospital with a scary asthma flare-up.
Welcome to life on an urban heat island. When it’s hot everywhere, it’s hotter here. Almost all of Chelsea is considered a heat island, meaning that daytime temperatures can be much as 7 degrees hotter than in neighboring areas, thanks to buildings and pavement that absorb heat and a lack of greenery to help cool it down.
As climate change progresses, heat waves like the one that has settled over New England this week are expected to become even more common. That means an increased risk to human health. Between 2004 and 2018, heat caused at least 10,500 deaths in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s more than hurricanes, tornadoes, or floods most years. The main solutions offered by cities like Boston have been cooling centers where residents can escape the heat, but those are famously underused.
Cities like Chelsea, an environmental justice community with a high percentage of people of color and high population density, are particularly vulnerable.
But for Amaya and her family, at least, there’s a bit of hope — not that they can stop the heat from coming, but that their neighborhood can adapt.
Chelsea, in partnership with the grass-roots environmental justice group GreenRoots and researchers from Boston University, is experimenting on one especially hot block near Amaya’s home. Over the course of the next year, they hope to significantly reduce extreme heat with some carefully selected low-tech strategies that can be exported to other communities across Chelsea, and beyond.
The block they are focusing on — Congress Avenue, between Willow and Highland streets — represents a particularly hot part of this particularly hot city. On one side, there’s a large industrial building. On the other, there are apartment buildings and the Boys and Girls Club. And everywhere, there’s a lot of concrete and asphalt. All those hard surfaces absorb a lot of heat.
“Satellite maps indicate that that whole block is hot,” said Madeleine Scammell, an associate professor of environmental health at Boston University who is co-leading the project.
The Boys and Girls Club has agreed to have its black roof converted to a “cool roof”— painted white to reflect the sun rather than absorbing it.
Researchers have found that the widespread adoption of cool roofs can lower the temperature of an urban area up to 9 degrees, according to Matei Georgescu, a senior sustainability scientist at the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University. Even on a smaller scale, under the right conditions, a cool roof can offer some relief from the heat.
“The air over the roof is now cooler,” said Georgescu. Painting just one roof, or a few, would likely have a limited impact, but in conjunction with other measures, it could add up, he said.
On the same block in Chelsea, a private developer — the Seyon Group — has agreed to cede a vacant lot to the effort. That will be converted to green space, likely with misting stations and fountains for drinking and refilling bottles, and shady spots. One 2015 study found that misting stations almost immediately decreased the skin temperatures of people using them. And shade is something that this part of Chelsea is sorely lacking. Unlike cooling centers, these stations would provide cooling on the street where people live, rather than requiring that they go somewhere.
“When I first came to Chelsea 35 years ago there wasn’t as much construction, and there weren’t as many big condos,” said Amaya. “There was a lot more vegetation and a lot more trees. Even the air felt lighter.”
Greg Hughes, managing director of the Seyon Group, said a new building the group is planning for the block will also incorporate some changes — like a 10-foot setback from the sidewalk and landscaping plans that include lots of trees — that he hopes will mitigate some of the heat impacts there.
And the city is working on plans for reflective pavement — called cool streets — that will decrease how much heat gets absorbed. That could look like pavement murals or the use of lighter sidewalk materials like reinforced concrete that, like a white roof, will reflect heat back to the atmosphere, said Alexander Train, director of Chelsea’s Department of Housing and Community.
“My main hope is that through this project we’re able to prove that these measures can be done cost effectively and . . . that they’re actually efficacious and result in a reduction in temperatures so we can scale them and replicate them in other neighborhoods,” said Train.
A blend of funding from the Barr Foundation and the state’s Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness grant program has supported the work so far, but organizers said they will need more.
A health-specific part of this project launched last summer, when BU and GreenRoots began gathering health data from 22 participants in Chelsea to learn more about how they are affected by the heat. That work is continuing this summer and will be ongoing as the block is transformed, with the hope of being able to measure the impacts of the work they are doing, said Roseann Bongiovanni, executive director of GreenRoots.
The stakes are high.
What Amaya and her family have experienced during the heat wave is emblematic of the risks faced more broadly in Chelsea, where residents already suffer from higher rates of asthma, respiratory illness, and cardiovascular disease due to repeated exposure to air pollutants from Logan Airport, Route 1 and the industrial presence in the city, according to Train.
This year, for the first time ever, Chelsea has opened cooling centers, but those facilities are rarely used, even in areas with a lot of need. That’s why Bongiovanni and others on the project are hoping they can deliver cooling where residents are more likely to take advantage of it — on their street.
Amaya’s grandson is back home now, where he is resting as his oxygen levels are being monitored. But without relief from the heat, Amaya is left worrying about the next heat wave, and the one after that.