Panelists (left to right): Ayisha Swann, Kate Johnson, Kristin Baja, and Kevin Bush. Image by Jane Green.

How will the Washington region be affected by extreme heat as the planet continues to heat up, and how can we adapt? That’s the topic national and local experts discussed in an event held jointly by the Urban Land Institute and Greater Greater Washington on Thursday, August 8.

A common natural disaster linked to climate change—which does not get enough attention—is heat waves. That’s according to Kevin Bush, Chief Resilience Officer at the DC Office of Resilience, who points out that heat kills more residents than any other natural disaster.

The urban heat island effect describes built up areas that are hotter than nearby rural ones. According to the EPA, “Heat islands can affect communities by increasing summertime peak energy demand, air conditioning costs, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, heat-related illness and mortality, and water pollution.”

A city’s resilience refers to its ability to survive, adapt, and grow while its ability to maintain essential functions is threatened by chronic stresses and acute shocks. Acute shocks are sudden extreme events like heat waves and floods, while chronic stresses refer to things like a lack of affordable housing and stressed transportation systems. Just last month, the District experienced two acute shocks: Extreme heat and an extreme storm.

DC is aiming to be carbon neutral and climate resilient by 2050. In the meantime, its population is expected to reach almost a million by 2040, which will further stretch its affordable housing supply. That’s why its resilience strategy focuses on how to handle economic and population growth, in addition to adapting to climate change.

Heat and its impacts are not equally distributed

A recent National Geographic map confirmed that DC has gotten hotter, but that the heat is not uniform across the city. While the District has a heat emergency plan for when temperatures reach 95 degrees, that remains a citywide number that is only reflective of the average. That means some days, when the city technically has no heat emergency, some areas might still be experiencing one, explains Kate Johnson, chief of the Green Building and Climate Branch at the Department of Energy & Environment.

Low-income communities and communities of color have been the first and the most impacted by climate change, says Kristin Baja, Climate Resilience Officer at the Urban Sustainability Directors Network. “Many policies are shaped around white supremacy,” she points out, and other forms of structural discrimination like ageism and sexism also harm individuals and communities and make them less resilient. She suggests redistributing assets to better equip disenfranchised neighborhoods.

Johnson references Chicago’s 1995 heat wave, where race and economic status played a significant role in who survived and who didn’t. But one case of two neighborhoods with similar racial and economic profiles is telling: The one where residents had much better outcomes had maintained many of its social institutions like local businesses and churches. Residents used these places as cooling centers and “resilience hubs,” which serve as points of resource distribution in a natural or manmade emergency.

So what happens to a longtime resident who doesn’t have the social or financial support to keep up with their changing neighborhood?

The District has launched a pilot project to identify “resilience hubs” on Benning Road in Ward 7 as part of its Climate Ready DC plan. A lot of people don’t know where the existing “formal” shelters are, or simply do not feel safe there, and a GIS analysis is not going to be enough, according to Johnson. Asking communities who they trust to partner with to operate these hubs, either public and/or private, is essential.

It’s not always easy to find money for resilience

Alas, in the absence of dedicated funding, sometimes obtaining money for climate resiliency initiatives is like “putting together a puzzle,” Baja says. It involves identifying different stakeholders and finding grants from various philanthropic foundations. While DC offers funding for things like stormwater mitigation, she stresses that there needs to be dedicating money for other resilience initiatives in Capital Improvement Plan budgets.

Ayisha Swann, Development Associate at JBG Smith, says while a lot of the discussion about global warming is still being placed in a future context, developers, like many others, are seeing changes in the present. For example, climate change is impacting insurance premiums, which in turn changes long-term investment strategies.

Money aside, there are still other challenges. Before it was known Amazon would be coming to Crystal City, an area in Northern Virginia that “violates some fundamental urban planning best practices,” as Swann put it, she along with JBG Smith had started experimenting with new climate-conscious technologies. Besides being kinder to the environment, they wanted to use them infuse life into the area.

However, she says it was difficult to find suppliers that had access to the materials they wanted to use, not to mention a skilled workforce that could install them. Eventually, they found a heat-reducing asphalt they tested on an underutilized lot. “Nobody wants to be the first mover,” Swann says. “We don’t have a choice at this point […], but a private-public collaboration.”

A green infrastructure system is exactly that, Johnson adds: A system like any other that needs installation, operation, and maintenance. To this end, Baja says cities should prioritize training in green jobs, particularly in vulnerable communities like those with a lot of formerly incarcerated and low-income people. These skills could range from installing solar panels to planting and maintaining trees and green roofs.

Yes, it’s grim, but there’s cause for hope

As part of its effort to mitigate both flooding and stormwater runoff as well as the urban heat island effect, last year 14,000 new trees were planted in the District, more than New York City or Los Angeles. It also replaced impervious surfaces with plants, cool roofs, and shaded areas. Waste heat from sewers is now being used for heating and cooling processes.

Another big issue in the region is flooding. Some US cities are retrofitting their streets block-by-block to help them better handle stormwater runoff. For example, Portland identifies impervious surfaces like parking lots and dividers on freeways and swaps them out for vegetation and pervious materials. The District has a variety of initiatives to address this too.

Stormwater management updates in Portland. Image by Ricky Angueira used with permission.

With its progressive stormwater management policies and Green Area Ratio and zoning regulations are great for new developments, there are ways to “green” older buildings too. The resilience opportunity assessment tool can be used for energy audit and resilience backup power strategies. DC is also looking at cities around the world where air-conditioning is not as prevelant to see how residents cope with heat.

While it may be daunting, there’s a lot that can be done to address extreme heat and other impacts of climate change, says Elizabeth Foster, the Urban Land Institute’s Urban Resilience Senior Associate. If cities would implement the mitigation measures we’ve already identified, “The urban heat island effect could be reduced or potentially canceled out.” If you want to learn more, you can check out ULI’s Extreme Heat and Real Estate report.

Correction: DC’s population is projected to reach about 1 million people by 2040, not 2024.