A week after the release of a new ULI report on urban heat effects and the built environment, a ULI Washington event focused on how the city is planning for and responding to urban heat issues. While Washington, D.C., is in many ways a leader on this issue, speakers agreed that equity issues need to be addressed in addition to specific policy changes.
“D.C. is one of the urban areas that we profile in the report for being a leader—not just for thinking about a resilient built environment, but for looking at community resilience and thinking holistically,” said Elizabeth Foster, the lead author of Scorched: Extreme Heat and Real Estate.
The panel was cohosted by ULI Washington and Greater Greater Washington (GGW), a regional advocacy group. ULI Washington manager Becca Hertz and GGW’s development director Jane Green welcomed the audience and panelists.
Themes that emerged included building policy, listening to the community, collaboration between public and private sectors, and addressing inequality.
“Heat kills more [Americans] every year than every other natural disaster combined,” said Kevin Bush, drawing on a point from the report. Bush, D.C.’s chief resilience officer, sees widespread effects. “Heat impacts everything from rails to asthma,” he said.
Bush outlined the city’s Resilient D.C. strategy, a multifaceted plan that incorporates input from more than 1,100 District residents. He called resilience “the immune system of a city,” and said that prescriptions must address both acute shocks and chronic stresses. One feature of the strategy is establishing Resilience Hubs—safe refuges for residents in vulnerable areas—in case of a climate-related crisis.
To form a clearer picture of what is known as the urban heat island effect, the D.C. resilience team collected and mined temperature data. The city enlisted volunteers to record temperatures, explained Kate Johnson, the chief of green building and climate at the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment. Officials then analyzed and mapped the data. On a single day in August 2018, citizen scientists recorded temperatures ranging from about 84 degrees to over 101 degrees Fahrenheit. A map representing the findings shows cores of red (higher temperatures) toward the center of the city where high concentrations of buildings and pavement absorb heat, which fade to cool greens in more outlying neighborhoods with more open space. This information, Johnson said, could change how the city determines a heat emergency and where it establishes hubs.
Johnson also drilled down into ways that building policy can confront the urban oven. For example, building codes require cool roofs for all new construction. Thanks to this policy and other incentives, D.C. now boasts the highest rate of green roof installation in the United States. Attendees could see this illustrated through the seventh-story window of the meeting room. A patchwork of lighter-colored green roofs stood out among the darker, heat-absorbing roofs.
Policies intended to manage water serve double duty by protecting people and the built environment from heat. Johnson cited D.C.’s stormwater credit trading program—the first of its kind—and the River Smart program, as well as requirements for planting trees and installing water-permeable surfaces.
Even beyond the policy level, Ayisha Swann, a development associate with JBG Smith, said that real estate developers are also seeing the benefits of incorporating these concepts. Swann is part of the team building the area that will house Amazon’s HQ2 in Arlington County, Virginia. This major project is taking voluntary measures like pilot testing heat-reducing asphalt. Despite a few hurdles, the cool paving material made its East Coast debut when JBG brought it to National Landing last year as part of a comprehensive placemaking strategy that also includes installing additional shade trees in public spaces.
Swann does not see climate change as part of a distant future. “We’re starting to see the impacts now,” she said.
The theme of collaboration factored into all of the panelists’ approaches. For Johnson, that meant suppressing the urge to simply crunch data. Instead, she emphasized listening to community members about where and how to set up resilience hubs and identify ongoing partners. “We’re really challenging ourselves to step back,” Johnson said, and ask the community about their needs and assets.
Swann recognized the necessity of teaming up from the developer side. “The way that we approach climate change from now on is it has to be a collaboration between the private sector and the public sector,” she said.
In all of their responses, actors must take race into account, said Kristin Baja, climate resilience officer at the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, a peer-to-peer network of local government professionals. “Race represents the widest disparity among people in the U.S.,” she said. “Being able to say, ‘How are we addressing structural, procedural, and distributional racism?’ is the way that I think we should start with equity and start with the work.”
Baja and Johnson saw correlations between the hottest areas on maps of Baltimore and D.C. and the boundaries of real estate redlining. Scorched echoes that phenomenon using the example of Richmond, Virginia. In Baltimore and Washington, D.C., discriminatory lending policies concentrated African American communities in certain areas. Chronic lack of investment and resources often followed, leading to fewer green spaces and other cooling features. These places affected by housing policies of the past now face the worst of the urban heat island effect.
Job creation is one of the opportunities that comes with climate change and will benefit both the public and real estate. Baja and Johnson pointed to government programs that train and employ local residents. “There are real jobs in the installation and even more important in the operations and maintenance of green infrastructure,” said Johnson. “It’s a system like any other.”
Before closing the panel, Bush opened the floor to audience questions. Attendees asked the experts’ thoughts on a range of topics, including accessible communication strategies and adding affordable housing in the cooler zones of the city.
“I thought the panel was very informative,” said attendee Raquel Perez, an Artemis associate and a member of ULI’s Young Leaders Group. “Just seeing how heat or climate change can impact properties and how I should view properties was very insightful,” she said.
Roy Simon, of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, also found the temperature study compelling. “This technology, data, and analysis coming out is great,” said Simon, who is the coordinator of the Urban Waters Federal Partnership. He imagines pop-up cooling centers that could go precisely where needs were greatest. He also foresees impacts beyond the D.C. borders. “A lot of efforts going on in the city have a lot of national implications,” he said.