Virginia's Urban Poor Stuck on Heat Islands

Nov 4, 2019

You’ve probably heard of heat islands – places in cities where temperatures tend to be higher.  In Richmond, scientists say they’ve found a surprising correlation between those places and the people who live there.

Cities are made of things that tend to hold heat according to Jeremy Hoffman, chief scientist at the Science Museum of Virginia

“Dark and heavy, dense material like asphalt and bricks absorb more of the sun’s energy during the day and then re-emit it back to the air as heat in the afternoon and into the evening.”

In fact, Hoffman says, city neighborhoods lacking trees and green spaces can be really toasty on summer days.

A boy takes a plunge on a rope swing on Belle Island near downtown Richmond on July 6, 2010. Temperatures soared toward 100 degrees or more that day along much of the East Coast.
Credit AP File Photo/Steve Helber

“We gave really sensitive thermometers to volunteer scientists and we drove around during a heatwave in 2017 and we discovered a 16 degree difference between the coolest and warmest place at the same time on the same day.” 

It turned out these neighborhoods were the poorest ones in Richmond, and their residents suffered as a result.

“We’ve found that the hottest parts of Richmond tend to have the highest rates of ambulance responses for heat-related illnesses as well as the highest rates of people going to the hospital for heat-related illnesses, so it’s a clear public health issue not only here in Richmond but across the state of Virginia.”

The scientists shared their findings with local leaders who are using the information to help the city adapt to climate change.

“By planting native plants and trees in those areas we can really ameliorate a lot of the heat island effect pretty quickly, but also whenever we redevelop an area or add buildings to those areas we should make sure their rooftops are reflective, that they have designs to create shade canyons for people who might be walking through those neighborhoods.  Really it improves the whole health of the neighborhood.”  :26

Rooftop gardens are another green option, and all of these things can not only cool the city but improve the quality of air and water.