At an Earth Day celebration in Chinatown on Friday, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu unveiled a plan to prepare the city to handle soaring summer temperatures that are intensifying because of the climate crisis — and hitting vulnerable communities hardest.
The city’s comprehensive new Heat Plan includes more than two dozen strategies to help Bostonians beat the heat, ranging from expanding shade-providing tree coverage and installing water bottle filling stations in schoolyards; to investing in cooling infrastructure, such as green roofs; and educating construction managers about how to keep outdoor workers safe in hot weather.
“We know, we feel, every summer that our weather patterns are changing, and that climate change is here right now,” Wu told scores of people gathered at Auntie Kay and Uncle Frank Chin Park on the Rose Kennedy Greenway.
Chinatown is particularly vulnerable to high temperatures because it is a heat island — an area where abundant concrete and asphalt soak up incoming solar energy and radiate heat. A city survey found that during the summer of 2019, temperatures in Chinatown were about 10 degrees warmer than in other parts of the city.
As the climate warms, the heat island effect is becoming more of a concern; between 2010 and 2020, Boston saw more hot days than any decade in the previous 50 years, according to the city. Heat waves may not seem as scary as floods or hurricanes, but they are the deadliest form of extreme weather in the United States, especially for people who lack the means to protect themselves.
“We’ve heard some residents say they can’t afford to put on their air conditioning units,” Roseann Bongiovanni, executive director of environmental justice organization GreenRoots, said in an interview. “So they’re essentially down to their underwear, sitting in their living rooms in front of a fan with cold, wet towels on them. That’s not fair. That’s just not livable conditions.”
Some of the Wu administration’s plans aim to lower temperatures while reducing carbon emissions to limit future warming. One example: expanding tree coverage. Trees provide shade and also release water, which cools the air as it turns into a vapor. And trees pull carbon from the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis.
“In every issue that we’re thinking about, it’s about how we connect all the urgent challenges our residents and families have been facing,” Wu said at the press conference.
The city also plans to deploy heat sensors to track temperatures, which it will use to inform future planning. And it plans to convene a task force of officials and community leaders to coordinate responses to heat waves and other extreme weather.
Heat-absorbing regions tend to be concentrated in poor communities of color, a disparity that experts have linked to redlining — the government-led practice of denying Black and brown families home loans and insurance and labeling their neighborhoods “hazardous” to real estate investors. A 2021 report found that Boston has sixth hottest heat islands in the nation.
According to the city, during heat waves, formerly redlined areas can be 7.5 degrees Fahrenheit hotter in the day and 3.6 degrees hotter at night than the rest of Boston.
To help ease these disparities, Wu’s administration will place particular focus on five neighborhoods that experience the city’s highest temperatures: Chinatown, Dorchester, East Boston, Mattapan, and Roxbury.
In Chinatown, for instance, the city is partnering with the Rose Kennedy Greenway to give Mary Soo Hoo Park a makeover. It has installed a water bubbler and misting stations, and will redesign the space based on the input of local residents, officials said at the press conference.
To kick off the Heat Plan’s implementation, the city will roll out three pilot projects. Throughout the summer, officials will distribute cooling kits for public events, establish a grant program to incentivize developers to install cool roofs on buildings, and challenge local designers to design cooling bus stops (the best design will be used for new shelter on the Silver Line).
Bongiovanni, who last year led the launch of a “cool block” that will include roofs painted white to reflect solar radiation and foliage in Chelsea, said she was “thrilled” to hear about the new plan.
“We think it’s a really great way to highlight the importance of urban heat islands, especially as we come upon the warmer months,” she said. “We saw just how critically hot it was last year, last summer, and how folks in environmental justice communities are most impacted. So we’re really excited to see this.”