This summer, rising temperatures have buckled bridges in Europe and rendered the Indian sub-continent almost unlivable. In Charlotte, 2022 is one of the warmest in Charlotte’s record, with more than 40 days with temps at or above 90 degrees.
Hot as the entire world is, this question bubbles up: Why does it feel even hotter inside of cities?
It feels hotter inside cities, including Charlotte, because it IS hotter inside them. This is partly due to the rapid increase of climate change. But, it’s also because of a phenomenon known as the “urban heat island,” which occurs “when cities replace natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Outside of business districts, this heat island is most often found in lower-income neighborhoods, directly affecting the customers that we serve at Crisis Assistance Ministry.
Research published in the journal Earth’s Future in 2021 shows that the distribution of heat in urban areas varied within U.S. cities, and, across the board, neighborhoods with “lower-income and higher shares of non-white residents experience significantly more extreme surface urban heat than their wealthier, whiter counterparts.” In more than 70% of counties, the actual structure of the hotter neighborhoods is “quite uniform,” the research shows.
This means that the burden of extreme heat is not equally shared among a city’s residents.
These neighborhoods commonly correlate to those that were redlined as “hazardous,” as shown on loan corporation maps from the 1930s. Banks refused loans for properties in these spaces for more than three decades, driving wealth and investments to other city areas. These spaces were and remain more likely than other areas to be home to minority residents who are of lower income, as shown in a study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.
And while extreme heat can be exacerbated in any part of a city that has more buildings, concrete, and asphalt than trees and green areas – consider Charlotte’s Uptown – the areas that received less investment and attention are the most vulnerable to heat due to inferior original infrastructure. Those neighborhoods may be more “affordable” to low-wage workers, but they are also places where air-conditioned housing is sparse.
The paradox of staying cool
The Cool Coalition website says only a handful of states have mandates requiring cooling systems in housing. The very act of conditioning indoor air can contribute to emissions that increase the pace of climate destruction. And for families we often see here at Crisis Assistance Ministry, there is the question of what bill to pay: the rent, medicine, or air conditioning.
As the pace of climate change increases, so will the number of days that are above 90 degrees, as well as the days that are above 100 degrees. Increased energy consumption leads to higher air pollution, the EPA notes, which contributes to an uptick in environment-related illnesses.
It’s not just about comfort.
Heat can aggravate and intensify underlying health conditions such as asthma. Premature births and stillbirths have been associated with extreme heat, according to NewScientist.com. In areas that are already underserved in health care, having a healthy pregnancy and birth becomes riskier in unabated hot weather.
Maps made in the 1930s of red-lined African American neighborhoods and juxtaposed with other information gathered as recently as 2018 show a strong correlation to current health inequities in the same communities. The effects of lack of investment led to a ripple effect of food deserts, health and healthcare disparities, a higher infant mortality rate, continued and growing poverty, and employment and educational inequities. Because the neighborhoods lacked access to healthcare, quality foods and recreational facilities, the people living in them—predominately Black people—struggled more than those in neighborhoods with access to helpful resources. Historical disparities that stem from racism and racially motivated policies compound to make everything more difficult.
It’s something to think about as many of us move from air-conditioned homes to air-conditioned cars and back on our way to climate-controlled workplaces. While we may complain about the heat, some of our neighbors are truly feeling the heat in life-threatening ways.
At Crisis Assistance Ministry, we see hundreds of families a week who are struggling to keep the power on—some to keep cooling systems going, some to offset the heat with cool water and fans. Last month, we received more than 700 air conditioner units from Electrolux to distribute to customers who may be without central air or a window unit as the summer continues. We welcome donations of new or gently used furniture and appliances, all of which are distributed free of charge through our Furniture & Appliance Store, and financial support to help neighbors keep their utilities flowing. Both can help offer relief in this sweltering weather.