Following a searing three-day heat wave, the mayor's office announced Wednesday the launch of a $106 million initiative to "mitigate the threat to public health from the urban heat island effect exacerbated during summer months." This urban heat island effect, as anyone who’s ever traveled from midtown to the beach intuitively understands, refers to the heat-absorbing asphalt and concrete surfaces that can make the city miserable this time of year.
Dubbed Cool Neighborhoods NYC, the program is focused on bringing relief to neighborhoods most susceptible to heat-related health risks, as defined by the city's Heat Vulnerability Index. To that end, about 80 percent of the $106 million investment will go toward planting trees in the South Bronx, Central Brooklyn, and Northern Manhattan. The city has also prioritized 2.7 million square feet of public and private rooftops to be fit with greenery and painted white over the coming years.
In addition to the $82 million going to the three heat-sensitive regions, $16 million will support tree-planting in parks, and another $7 million will help reforestation efforts across all five boroughs. The remainder of the Cool Neighborhoods investment will go toward things like educational campaigns for home health aides and the launch of a pilot program to identify residents at risk for heat stroke.
Ben Orlove, a senior research scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, said the new initiative deserves praise for its "multiple approaches to reducing the heat island effect and looking to reduce the vulnerability of people who are most affected by heat waves." On average, there are 13 yearly deaths from heat stroke, 115 heat-related deaths, and 450 emergency-room visits for heat-related illness in New York.
"Death from a heat wave is a particularly tragic and appalling form of death, demonstrating the moral failures of our society in a lot of ways," Orlove added.
Mayor Bill de Blasio echoed that sentiment in a statement, noting: "Climate change is a dagger aimed at the heart of our city, and extreme heat is the edge of the knife. This is a question of equity; hotter summers, exacerbated by climate change, are a threat that falls disproportionately on communities of color and the elderly."
In addition to helping vulnerable residents, the tree-planting element of Cool Neighborhoods has all sorts of ecological benefits. Large tree pits, for example, can reduce flooding during heavy rain events, which lessens the likelihood of untreated sewage flowing into our rivers (one day, Orlove claims, we might even be able to swim in these rivers). The trees also help with particulate matter, a major issue in highway-adjacent parts of the Bronx, where the rate of children with asthma is much higher than the rest of the city. And there's the cooling effect of greenery—thanks to Earth Science processes like evapotranspiration—which cuts down on energy costs throughout the city.
In a broader sense, local initiatives like this can have a sort of snowball effect, Orlove says, particularly as cities are forced to lead the fight against climate change without federal help.
"City governments are increasingly networked, so a successful tree program in New York encourages tree programs elsewhere, because New York is such an iconic and densely populated city," the scientist said. "Demonstrating achievability here really does send a message."