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Texas Matters: Degrees Of Injustice - The Social Inequity Of Urban Heat Islands

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Kevin Lanza installs a heat monitor at an Austin bus shelter
David Martin Davies
Kevin Lanza installs a heat monitor at an Austin bus shelter

NOTE: Degrees of Injustice was produced as an episode of Living Downstream: The Environmental Justice Podcastand in partnership with Northern California Public Radio.

“It will definitely cool down in a minute. It’s an old truck – yes – I love my truck,” Kayla Miranda told me as she turned the key of her much-loved pick-up truck and throttled up the air conditioning.

Miranda gave me a driving tour of the Alazan-Apache Courts, a public housing complex on San Antonio’s West Side. The air conditioner blasted into the truck’s cab like a welcomed blue norther. This is appreciated because it’s another hot summer day in San Antonio. The temperature is in the upper 90’s. That’s the official weather service reading but here, in the Alazan-Apache Courts, it gets even hotter. You can count on the mercury reaching three to seven degrees hotter than the city’s average temperature. This is because of the urban heat island effect. And when we are in the upper 90’s, every additional degree makes a punishing difference.

“Los Courts” covers 26 acres just west of downtown. It’s an area that has its share of problems but it’s also a deeply knit community with a long rich history that the residents are proud of.

“The First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt came and did the ground breaking here. It’s one of the first properties in the United States that were public housing, definitely the first in San Antonio,” said Miranda.

That was in 1939. It was on an earlier San Antonio visit during the Great Depression that Eleanor Roosevelt first saw the primitive conditions that many of the local Mexican Americans were living in. Some resided in overcrowded shacks with tin roofs, dirt floors, and tar paper walls. These dwellings had no indoor plumbing, and human waste poured into the unpaved streets. The city’s white leadership opposed creating the public housing project dedicated to helping the Mexican American families. This was a time when there was widespread institutional discrimination against Mexican Americans and many jobs were off limits. This was a population that the establishment thought to be only fit for low skill labor. It was only after Roosevelt directly intervened that the projects were built.

Over 80 years later, the same structures still stand and are still housing the city’s low income population — predominantly Mexican American. Around the courts, there are some trees but not many. Shade is hard to find. The two-story buildings are constructed of hollow tile and concrete which are perfect for trapping the sun heat and reflecting it, creating a heat sink.

Miranda drives past a playground area. “That's the office. And see this playground here. It's all metal. The kids can't go there and there's no shade,” she said.

Miranda said the playground equipment gets so hot from the sun’s direct rays that the metal burns the hands of the children.

Generally, urban heat islands are defined by looking at the temperature difference between a city and its surrounding rural areas. However, temperatures can vary widely within a city depending on the absence of leafy green space, parks, water features and other factors, creating smaller, intra-urban heat islands. Heat mapping of cities now reveals that these pockets are usually in the low income parts of the city, where communities of color live.

Miranda lives in one of these San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) apartment units with her four children. But before moving to the Courts, they were homeless.

“I was living in a motel with my kids. I had lost my business and my home was foreclosed on, I got divorced and we were either staying at motels or living in our car,” Miranda said.

“It was the worst experience I've ever had. I did everything I was supposed to do. You know, they tell you to work hard, save money, don't be extravagant with things. And that's exactly what I did. And then life hit me. And I remember we were standing in the bathroom of a 7-11 gas station at 6:30 in the morning. They're brushing their teeth and brushing her hair, because we had slept in the car that night before. And it just hits you, I'm failing as a parent. What can I do? My son had been diagnosed with autism. He has autism and epilepsy. And at the same time, I still need to work. So what can I do? And it took a year and a half, but I got this apartment,” Miranda said.

Their unit is a three-bedroom with one bathroom. Box fans are positioned strategically to keep the air flowing in the front room that also features a small window unit. Both whir above the din of the television. From my place on the couch I could see just beyond the small living room, the narrow alcove of a kitchen.

“Now these units are very small, but the square footage in this apartment, it's 789 square feet. That's the average of a one bedroom apartment and a normal complex. We have five people squeezed into a small space, but I see the benefit of having the smaller space because of it, your electric bill is less,” Miranda said.

The Alazan-Apache Courts were built before air conditioning became widely available. But it needs to be noted that the weather in San Antonio has gotten hotter and hotter since Eleanor Roosevelt’s’ visit here eight decades ago.

Carbon dioxide emission from the burning of petroleum and other human activities is making the planet warmer and that’s increasing the number of extreme heat days in San Antonio. The South Texas city now has many more days of temperatures over 100 degrees, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Recorded in the decade of the 1930’s, there were 61 days over 100 degrees in that ten year period. More recently, between 2010 and 2019 there were 191 recorded days over 100 degrees — a tripling of the number of extreme heat days.

The San Antonio Climate Ready Plan predicts that it’s going to get worse and that by 2060, the city will experience over 60 days a year of 100 degrees or more. That means at least 600 days of temperatures of 100 degrees or more in the decade of the 2060’s. That’s just 40 years away.

Having air conditioning can be a literal life saver. However, while cranking up the AC can be a tempting strategy for surviving the heat there are drawbacks. A study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory showed that air conditioning dumps waste heat into the surrounding outside area. This increases the heat island effect and adds to the demand for air conditioning. The study published in the “Journal of Geophysical Research Atmospheres” found that air conditioning can add an additional 1 to 2 degrees to the outside air compared to typical summer weather.

Furthermore, running the AC raises electric bills. Lower-income communities, who tend to live in less energy-efficient homes, end up paying disproportionately higher energy bills. And for residents of the Courts with no extra income, that means the air conditioner stays off.

“With that huge unit there, my bill is $330. And if you imagine somebody who's living on social security, has no other type of income coming in and they only give you $107 credit off your rent towards the electrical bill. Then it's almost impossible to pay that. So you have a choice, you can leave it off and deal with the heat, or you can turn it on and try to find a way to pay the electrical bill,” Miranda said.

But if residents don’t run the air conditioner, to survive they have little choice but to open up the windows and front door and that exposes them to the possibility of becoming victims of crime.

“There are gunshots here all the time. You never know. It happens during the day. It happens at night. It's more of a safety thing. If you're going to open your doors and windows and people are walking by and they're seeing your stuff open, they're going to break into your unit because you have it opened. It's easier for them. And if you want to protect yourself, don't do those things. You just have to keep the doors and windows locked,” Miranda said.

Miranda’s neighbor Sophia is also alarmed by the crime in the area — she’s originally from Mexico and speaks limited English. She didn’t want to give her last name. She says there’s a lot of police and gun shots — just like in Mexico.

As I talk to Sofia, she is watering a makeshift vegetable garden on her front porch. For pots, she uses whatever she can find – large tin cans and plastic containers repurposed. Nevertheless she is able to grow tomatoes, cantaloupes and peppers. She’s even cultivated a few avocado pits into little trees.

She said she’d like to be able to plant trees around her unit but she’s not allowed to plant into the ground of the Courts. It’s her dream to move away from here and have a yard of her own with a garden where she can plant trees.

Sofia said that’s why it’s so hot here because of the lack of trees. She calls the heat here oppressive and says it’s bad for the children and the elderly. And she said no one can be outside between noon and 5 pm because it’s so intensely hot.

In fact according to a report from the EPA published September 2021 the extreme heat is actually more deadly in neighborhoods where poverty rates are higher. In the report —“Climate Change and Social Vulnerability in the United States” — they found that rising temperatures resulting from climate change will lead to an increase in heat-related illnesses and deaths in low income areas.

Communities of color are being disproportionately impacted by the hotter weather and it’s taking a toll on their health and mortality. To put it bluntly — the heat is a killer.

“The three things that we think about in terms of deadliness of heat is how much you're exposed to heat, how sensitive your body might be and what level of coping capacity you have,” said Vivek Shandas, a professor of climate adaptation at Portland State University. He’s been studying the heat island effect on low income communities for more than 10 years.

“What we're finding across the country is that many of the hottest areas in cities and regions were consistently in areas where lower income and people of color we're living. And we were scratching our heads as to why that's the case,” Shandas said.

Using satellite mapping to chart the heat islands, Shandas discovered something: the hottest parts of a city were in areas that had been redlined.

Redlining was the racially discriminatory practice that labeled certain neighborhoods as off limits for home mortgages and other financial services like student loans, business loans and insurance. These were neighborhoods with a high populations of African Americans, Hispanics and immigrants.

“We looked at 108 cities across the country and found consistent patterns between the red lined areas and hotter temperatures. And on average, that was about five degrees Fahrenheit from the redlined areas to their non red lined counterparts though, there were many cities that varied in some that were as high as 13 degrees Fahrenheit,” said Shandas.

During the hottest days of the summer, every extra degree is felt. According to the National Center for Biotechnical Information, during a heat wave every one degree increase in temperature can increase the risk of dying by as much as 2 point 5 percent. Higher temperatures can strain the heart and make breathing more difficult — increasing the risk for cardiac arrest and an asthma attack.

“If you don't have air conditioning or you can't run it because you don't have that kind of financial resources and that coping capacity, and let's say you have a preexisting health condition, like you have asthma or something like that… and in your neighborhood that's five or six degrees hotter than other neighborhoods around you. That could be a lethal difference in terms of temperatures,” said Shandas.

The public health concern of heat waves and heat islands once could have been designated a problem for the sun belt but with climate change — not anymore.

“When the temperatures get hot, though, in the Pacific Northwest, like we saw this last summer of 2021, when a heat dome descends upon the Northwest, like everybody's scrambling, no one knows what to do. People don't have real options. There's messaging that is really confusing from various public agencies; lots of folks didn't know what to do. And we saw going up into Canada, down to Oregon about almost a thousand people that passed away as a result of that heat dome,” said Shandas.

“And so the folks who die for from heat waves are often folks who are marginalized in society. So in some ways, because of their identity, because of their income, because of their immigrant status, they're often very isolated and don't have access to these resources and are the ones that are struggling the most with public health,” he said.

It sounds simple. To combat the effects of urban heat islands, more trees should be planted. Since these are areas that lack leafy green spaces, they trap heat and rob the area of the benefit of overnight cooling. So let’s plant trees. But which species of trees is best?

“What is a good tree to plant for urban heat management? Well, that's the billion dollar question,” said Kevin Lanza, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin Health School of Public Health. He’s part of a team studying Urban Heat Islands, their impact on people and how to mitigate their impact.

Lanza said instead of spending a lot of time and resources planting trees that aren’t suited to the location and won’t survive, there should be a community connected comprehensive plan.

“And so you have to understand which trees are going to survive and thrive with projected rising temperatures, as well as what are the different benefits from each tree species, which researchers are working on right now to quantify, and to specifically identify which trees would work best,” said Lanza.

For the needed shade, an area needs big leafy trees — a full canopy of them. But there is much more to consider. Too dense a canopy has its disadvantages, including trapping humidity and warm air. There are different properties to think through.

“How much allergen does this tree emit? How much space does this tree need for it to root and to thrive and survive? How much water does this tree need for it to survive as well as how much water does this tree control in terms of a storm water management piece with its root system,” said Lanza.

So what we need is information and data about these concentrated heat zones.

I met up with Lanza and other members of the urban heat island monitoring team in Austin. They were gathering to prepare to install monitors in the Rundberg neighborhood.

“We are going to be installing a fixed site network, these different air temperature and relative humidity sensors at different sites based on land cover. So we'll have a couple of these installed over parking lot areas to potentially capture higher temperature areas. So we have a community garden in the back where we'll be installing a sensor,” said Lanza.

The sensors look like white small sconce lamps but they don’t create light, they monitor the heat and the humidity — two stress conditions that make being outside in the summer unpleasant and depleting.

Extreme heat is hard on human beings — not just physically, but also mentally. Those who already live with mental illness, are particularly vulnerable, as the heat can exacerbate their condition. Some medications impede the body’s ability to regulate temperatures and can cause dehydration or heat stroke.

When Lanza and his team installed the monitor at a bus stop shelter, it was mid-day as a crowd of people sat or stood to wait for the next bus. It was loud, chaotic, and very hot. Lanza explained that these are the stressful conditions that make the lives of many more difficult than they need to be.

“You may be immediately adjacent to a busy street that has car traffic from nine to five, with peaks and valleys. You may hear noises that are disruptive from these cars, from these other happenings in an urban environment, you may be getting exhaust fumes from these cars. Because there is no shade. There's no respite. This experience one has may affect their mental health. And this also may later affect their physical health if they continue to choose not to want to be on these routes that are uncomfortable for them and could lead to lower physical activity levels and therefore a host of chronic diseases,” he said.

Lanza proposes that cities develop a comprehensive strategy to blunt the impact of urban heat islands. He wants cities to be thinking about “cool corridors.”

“Cool corridors is this idea of creating cities that are walkable, bikeable, and livable by implementing different active transportation infrastructure — such as sidewalks, bike lanes trails, along with spaces for physical activity, such as parks and gyms and having these linear, active transportation infrastructure like these sidewalks,” said Lanza.

Connecting parks to neighborhoods with shaded pathways means people will be more likely to get outside and be physically active.

Not far from the bus stop is where Martha Garcia lives with her husband and children. Garcia doesn’t speak English. She told me about how unsafe she feels on the streets in her neighborhood. She and the children walk from the school at 3:30 in the afternoon when the heat is oppressive and relentless. She told me that the children cry because it is so hot. Garcia is taking part in a community outreach effort by Go Austin/Vamos Austin or GAVA.

“We are talking to residents, so we could get their input, their experiences, and their suggestions for a project we're doing with the UT Health and the Office of Sustainability in order to create strategies and projects. So we could be able to hopefully work with whatever residents are needing in their community based on their experiences,” said Frances Acuna, the Climate Resilience Community Lead Organizer for GAVA.

Acuna said GAVA has been working to map the heat islands of Austin and they found that some parts of the city are hotter — and some of these are areas that are lower income and predominantly Latino.

“So we drove cars in our neighborhoods, which was Southeast and then like Riverside Montopolis area. And then we came in north Austin. So it turned out that heat mapping came out like north Austin was a lot hotter than it is in Southeast. So we are working in this community to get the residents’ perspective. How does the heat affect their health, their community, their everyday life in their neighborhood,” she said, adding that many of the participants are construction workers who rely on the bus.

Garcia told Acuna a similar story. When she must take the bus to go a farther distance, she said, the bus stop is just a stop — there is no bench to sit, no shelter and no trees or anything else to shield her from the extreme heat of the sun.

Garcia said many of the homes in her neighborhood don’t have trees. She said the walk to her children’s school is totally bereft of them, but also of sidewalks. There is no shade when they walk to school or to the park.

And now, there are even fewer trees than there were before. In February, Texas experienced a rare winter storm that brought snow and days of subfreezing temperatures that killed many trees but also killed more than 170 people and caused at least 20 billion dollars in damage.

It may seem counterintuitive but the winter storm was caused by global warming.

According to a study published in the journal Science in September 2021, the warming of the Arctic is leading to an increase in extreme cold in places as far south as Texas. This also put a strain on the Texas electrical grid and caused widespread power outages, causing a statewide emergency.

We were told repeatedly that the power outages were rotating. But for many families like the Garcias, they were not rotating. The Garcias were without power and water for a week.

Their food in the refrigerator spoiled. Though a friend provided cases of bottled water and a meal for Garcia’s family, her children cried often that week saying they were cold, hungry, and thirsty. Garcia and her husband melted snow just to flush the toilet. “The nights were like years, an eternity,” she said.

Now she worries that the grid could fail again — during the hottest part of the summer. Just that week, the power went out again for an entire day. She and her children spent the day at a McDonald’s to stay cool.

She believes that the temperatures are hotter and for longer periods of time with each passing year. The heat exacerbates her husband’s asthma and Garcia’s diabetes.

Doing something about the urban heat islands is a way to take stress off the grid during extreme weather like prolonged heat waves.

Another thing that concerns Garcia is the traffic on her street. For Garcia — who walks with her children to and from school — the streets that lack sidewalks become even more perilous as cars speed through at 50 or 60 mph. Garcia recalls one terrible day when another mom and her three children walked just a few paces ahead and one of the children was struck by a car and killed.

Kevin Lanza said there’s an added bonus of adding trees. There’s evidence that they slow down traffic.

“Trees if they're placed appropriately in urban environments, they can reducing car speeds because it focuses cars on the road. It provides a reference point for driving and it leads to a potentially slower speed of traffic overall,” said Lanza.

There is a transportation movement in the U.S. calling for the building of complete streets, which rethinks how road space is given almost exclusively to automobiles. With a complete street, the result is a safer space for pedestrians with dedicated lanes for walking and biking away from speeding motorists.

Lanza said that cool corridors should be part of a complete street.

“If we were to flip a conventional street into a cool corridor, then you would have this infrastructure that's separated from the car at a distance to remove these individuals from those air pollutants, given off by the road itself, by the cars on the road and other processes. You would also have purposeful shading that allows individuals to travel in comfort and potentially start a habit or a routine that then also may lead to a modal shift. That is meaning a shift from choosing to use a car or other motor vehicle. And instead deciding to “active commute” using one's own feet or own bike to power their way from one point to another, which has its own health benefits. But at the same time, it's a climate change mitigation strategy because we're moving folks out of their cars,” said Lanza.

The problem with this strategy is that areas getting the complete street upgrade tend to be more affluent — where bike enthusiasts have already staked a claim.

The lower income parts of a city are less likely to score these amenities, which is a fact that Martha Garcia seems to know well.

When she walks the streets where there are no sidewalks to get to the bus where there is no shade, she must sometimes wait for the bus for upwards of 30 minutes or longer, sometimes in the heat of the day.

She said it is terrible that although she pays taxes, her neighborhood doesn’t have the most basic of things to improve the lives of those in her community.

It’s clear that for those directly affected by urban heat islands, getting to solutions to confront the problems require community involvement. But Vivek Shandas points out that every community is different and those solutions need to be tailored to those specific local needs.

“What we really need to be thinking about is what are the strategies? What's the social infrastructure that communities need to put in place to be able to engage the property owners, the trailer park owners, to be able to then reach out to potentially vulnerable individuals in our community to safeguard them with the necessary hydration with finding local cooling centers, being able to identify ways for them to be able to stay cool during those events,” said Shandas.

Back at the Alazan-Apache Courts, Kayla Miranda has become an organizer in social justice issues. They’ve taken on the issues related to leases, fees and evictions but also concerns about urban heat islands. She’s worked with box fan drives and has spoken out at San Antonio Housing Authority meetings about the residents’ needs.

“I founded the Coalition for Tenant Justice. But I also do outreach in all the apartments. So I go from property to property and try to organize the tenants to lead themselves. It’s just been a long fight, but we've done so much,” said Miranda.

“I meet at least once a month with SAHA staff. And then the tenants meet several times a month,” she said. “So it's just, it's a lot of work, but we work really hard and we do our best to help each other.”

It’s going to take neighborhoods and community leaders to work with city hall to advocate for cool corridors and lowering the temperature at the urban heat islands.

Meanwhile, climate change is all the more undeniable. Unless communities take action to reduce carbon in the atmosphere, extreme heat days will continue to be more frequent and a place for a shady rest will become more scarce.

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Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.
David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi