Community outreach project tackles heat resistance

Mystic River Watershed Association launches "Wicked Cool Mystic"

Aerial view of Malden (base layer of image) by Paul Hammersley.

By Shannon A. Garrido Berges

Extreme heat waves and dry summers are expected to become the norm in Massachusetts. Such extreme weather may pose significant health and safety concerns in cities like Boston, Everett and Malden. 

“Extreme heat is the silent killer, [because] it is the number one extreme weather killer out of hurricanes, tornadoes, or flooding,” said Marissa Zampino, a community organizer for the Mystic River Watershed Association (MyRWA), who concentrates on extreme heat safety. “We simply do not have the cultural or social know-how nor do we have the infrastructure needed to deal with heat waves.”

Marissa Zampino, Mystic River Watershed Association Community Organizer

Zampino has partnered with Museum of Science, Boston, MyRWA, the Resilient Mystic Collaborative (RMC) and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) to develop the Wicked Hot Mystic project,

This is a research project that developed detailed heat maps during the hottest days of this past summer to identify the neighborhoods most in need of heat safety interventions. The results are being used to help focus efforts to close heat safety gaps among communities in the Mystic River Watershed especially across race, income and language.   

According to Wyatt Oswald, an environmental scientist at Emerson College, “Extreme heat events generate public health crises [where] dozens or hundreds of people get sick or even die.”

“The kinds of places that you worry about most, it’s not the hot cities like Phoenix or Atlanta or Miami. Because in those places, heat is the norm and air conditioning is ubiquitous,” said Oswald. “There are infrastructural and cultural solutions already in place. Instead the places that you really want to worry about are the cold cities. So, it’s something that we in Boston really need to worry about because it can catch us off guard.”

By 2050, Massachusetts is projected to see more than 10 danger days a year or extreme heat. Boston just had its driest and hottest summer on record and Massachusetts is among the top 10 fastest warming states in the country, based on annual average temperatures since 1970. (Climate Central)

The Wicket Hot Mystic Project aims to identify locations that are most affected by the extreme heat waves and become a tool for community outreach. 

The Wicket Hot Mystic Project heat map, identifies the Mystic River Watershed neighborhoods most in need of heat safety interventions.

“We are now taking that data and taking three of our hottest cities—[weather that is] Chelsea or Malden—and doing community building projects,” Zampino said. “That could be more trees? A splash pad? A shading structure?”

Zampino mentioned several lines of solutions that they regularly put forward when approaching a community. A specific one is planting more trees and keeping those trees alive. It becomes more difficult to do so in urban settings, but according to Oswald it’s important to do so. 

“Urban trees are a natural solution to heat waves because they keep neighborhoods cool through direct shading,” said Oswald. “But also through what’s called ‘evapo transpiration’, [where] trees pull water out of the soil and put it into the air. And that has a cooling effect.”

Zampino’s is currently working to connect with organizations in Everett, Malden and Chelsea to try and recruit community members to become “cooling ambassadors” and help bring some of this outreach off the ground within the next two years, an initiative entitled “Wicked Cool Mystic.” The city of Everett has secured a $340,000 Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness grant to begin to address the findings from the Wicked Hot Mystic project. 

The Mystic River Watershed Association hosted an info table at the Malden Summer Festival to encourage people to get involved in addressing extreme heat impact.

The map is also set to reveal how socio-economic factors affect how the project sets to approach heat resistance. According to Zampino, so many of these heavily affected areas have been historically segregated. 

“One of the coolest areas in the watershed is actually Middlesex Fells Reservation. In developing areas you go out from the urban core, and the whiter neighborhoods get, because a lot of things too have to do with redlining,” said Zampino.

Areas that have been historically underfunded and received much less heat resistant infrastructure through the years are in many cases lower class neighborhoods. These neighborhoods are largely made up of people of color as well, who nationwide are much more vulnerable to climate change. 

This is not an unknown phenomenon. Redlined areas in Boston experience hotter climates during the summers. During a heat wave, redlined areas can be 7.5°F hotter in the day and 3.6°F hotter at night than the rest of Boston. The same can be said for the greater Boston area. 

According to Wicked Hot Mystic case study, residents living in neighborhoods that were labeled “hazardous” through discriminatory redlining practices nearly 100 years ago experienced temperatures over 3.5 degrees hotter on average than neighborhoods that were historically classified as “best.”

Cool Down community organizing, Chelsea MA

According to Oswald, the list of vulnerable people is still very extensive. He said that heat waves are particularly problematic for elderly people, infants, people with chronic health problems, people who work outdoors, and those experiencing homelessness.  

“In normal summer conditions, even if it gets really pretty hot during the daytime, if it gets into the 70s or 60s at night, that gives our bodies a chance to take a break,” Oswald explained. “But with heat waves, you get extended periods of time of elevated temperatures, not just during the daytime. And so, our physiology has a hard time dealing with that, and that’s particularly problematic for older people, for babies and also for people who have chronic health problems.”

Zampino intends to use these findings to encourage residents and community members in places like Malden to identify where people find heat burdens the most, starting with the most vulnerable communities. 

“Number one, the community knows the solutions. And we are there to figure [it] out. But number two, you don’t need some sort of Elon Musk technology,” Zampino jokes. “It’s trees. It’s green spaces. It’s shading your bus, it’s getting better access to the cooling centers, it’s putting in splash pads. It’s simple. It’s building community.”

Photos in the body of this article from Mystic River Watershed Association website – used with permission.

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