Organizers and speakers of “Heat Waves: Preparing for and Managing the Effects of Extreme Heat on Health, Populations, Emergency Housing, and Hospitals.”

No Disasters According to Plan, but the Hot Ones are Inevitable

Last November’s the AIANY Design for Risk and Reconstruction Committee’s (DfRR) symposium Extreme Heat: Hot Cities assembled experts from multiple specialties to address the risks associated with increasingly frequent and severe heat waves as global temperatures continue to rise. Combining a health-oriented follow-up panel with the release of the symposium report in print, online, and video formats, “Heat Waves” adds momentum to the interdisciplinary activity that Brian Stone has dubbed “urban heat management,” drawing on the expertise of architects, landscape architects, public health experts, and others. “No disaster goes according to plan,” commented panelist Cynthia Barton of the NYC Office of Emergency Management (OEM), but as unprecedented global conditions continue to make thermal disasters ever likelier, these knowledgeable parties are doing what’s possible to plan for them.

Deadly temperature spikes in Chicago (1995), Paris (2003), New Orleans (2005), Russia (2010), and elsewhere, speakers noted – not to mention the New York hardscape’s toaster-oven conditions, recurring essentially every summer – underscore the urgency of identifying and protecting vulnerable populations. This is at least as much a social imperative as a physical one, said sociologist/filmmaker Sabrina McCormick, keynote speaker at the event. Drawing from psychological research on mechanisms for coping with risk, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) studies on mortality rates, and her own research, she outlined a comprehensive approach to heat vulnerability as a public health hazard, considering “psychological, economic, and sociological factors involved in at-risk populations”: not one of climate change’s remote and too often deniable effects, but a danger on both immediate and long-range scales. She also estimated (and cited CDC officials’ agreement) that death records underestimate the extent of heat-related mortality by roughly tenfold. The topic calls out for more thorough data collection as well as a higher profile; it usually gets media attention, McCormick noted, only when someone dies.

The city recognizes familiar and overlapping categories of the vulnerable: the elderly (over 65), the very young (under four), the homeless, and people with chronic health conditions, taking prescription drugs, or abusing drugs or alcohol. Pets, too, are at risk. Public cooling centers are useful short-term tools, and New York City has 522 of them across the five boroughs, according to Barton (the OEM maintains a useful online guide for the general public, “Beat the Heat”). Those most in need of relief, however, often face barriers involving economics (paying the utility bills that air conditioning requires), logistics (someone needing a ride to an air-conditioned center may decide that staying in a hot apartment beats a long wait at a hotter bus stop), or social stigma (cooling centers are sometimes believed to harbor undesirable segments of the populace).

Briefer presentations by the other panelists emphasized the health-care system’s response during its wholesale reconstruction under the Affordable Care Act (Paul Savage, Senior Clinical Lecturer in Population Health Management, Iona College); the work being done by groups like the Urban Climate Change Research Network and Sustainable Tools for Assessing and Rating (STAR) Communities in analyzing and mapping the relations of design, local 3-D morphology, social cohesion, and thermal hazards (Jeffrey Raven, FAIA, LEED AP BD+C); New York’s coordinated city-agency responses (Barton); the common-sense but sometimes underemphasized role of landscape architecture (Pippa Brashear, SCAPE / Landscape Architecture); and strategies for mitigation in the realms of architecture, infrastructure, and codes, including building orientation, improved glazing, high-mass materials, reduction of rooftop thermal loads, and heat-resistive façades (Christopher McHugh, PE, AKF). Heat can produce domino-effect failures in critical systems (power, elevators, plumbing, HVAC, and others), making what Brashear termed “adaptive maintenance” a high priority throughout the built environment – particularly in the hospital sector, Savage noted, where large proportions of facilities were built in the mid-20th century and will need massive-scale replacement over the next 10-15 years.

The most effective long-term measures, panelists agreed, are those yielding co-benefits, both reducing greenhouse gases and advancing health and well-being: replacing fossil-fuel dependence with renewable energy affects climate change and improves air quality, and more green space fosters both exercise and shading. “The co-benefits approach is particularly interesting and important in an urban context in the United States,” McCormick noted, “in part because it also means that cities can use limited and finite resources to address multiple problems… a way that [advocates] could convince people who had control over the budget that they were doing a lot with their dollar.” The up side of any under-recognized widespread hazard may be that there is considerable low-hanging fruit out there: adaptive and mitigating measures that are readily feasible, once stakeholders and institutions are alerted and motivated.

Event: Heat Waves: Preparing for and Managing the Effects of Extreme Heat on Health, Populations, Emergency Housing, and Hospitals
Location: Center for Architecture, 04.26.16
Sabrina McCormick, Ph.D., Assoc. Professor, Milken Institute School of Public Health, George Washington University, and Senior Fellow, Wharton Risk and Decision Center, University of Pennsylvania; Cynthia Barton, Housing and Recovery Program Manager, Human Services Unit, NYC Office of Emergency Management; Pippa Brashear, MLA, MUP, Director of Planning and Resilience, SCAPE / Landscape Architecture; Christopher McHugh, PE, Partner, AKF Consulting Engineers; Jeffrey Raven, FAIA, LEED AP BD+C, Assoc. Professor and Director of the Graduate Program, Urban and Regional Design, NYIT, and  Principal, RAVEN A + U; Paul Savage, MBA, BSIE, Director, Healthcare Management, Senior Clinical Lecturer in Population Health Management, Iona College; Illya Azaroff, AIA, Principal, +LAB Architects, Assoc. Professor, NYC College of Technology, and Founding Co-chair, AIANY Design for Risk and Reconstruction Committee (DfRR) (moderator); Joan Capelin, Hon. AIA, Co-chair, DfRR (introduction to report)
AIANY Design for Risk and Reconstruction Committee, AIANY Health Facilities Committee, and New York Society for Health Planning (NYSHP)