An Under-Recognized Threat to Our Cities

In the last two decades, we have been witness to escalating weather conditions. Through the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012, we learned that we must increase our awareness and readiness for the unexpected. While we are increasingly familiar with the risks of sea level rise and the destruction caused by storms and tornadoes, one threat, a killer that strikes slowly but unremittingly, has gone less recognized: extreme heat.1

The AIANY Design for Risk & Reconstruction Committee (DfRR) is committed to addressing major topics of risk and how they interrelate. The committee’s mission is to educate the public and train design professionals to take on the challenges we uncover. In collaboration with colleagues from other AIANY committees, organizations, and the civil service, DfRR explores topics and illuminates how they interconnect with our communities and daily lives. Our inaugural program in 2011 featured noted climatologist Klaus Jacob, who delivered a dramatic lecture about climate change and sea level rise.

Ultimately, our goal is to be proactive rather than reactive. Extreme heat is a slow-moving threat that is often difficult to recognize in our “immediate needs and desires” and crisis-based society. Distracted by our day-to-day responsibilities, we often think the future is far off, that this will not affect us, here and now. As Al Gore notes, we operate on the “quarterly report.” Our risks, however, require long-term governance and visionary thinking.

Rather than wait for the next extreme heat event and respond to its dangerous outcomes, we thought it best to tackle this specific threat now. A proactive approach prepares us for inevitable events and can alter outcomes.

To isolate extreme heat from the collection of climate-related risks is nearly impossible. As the climate changes, extreme heat is a growing risk to cities. It affects energy use, water supply and use patterns, food delivery systems, food growing patterns, and land settlement patterns, potentially leading to wars, disease, famine, and migration.

The Symposium

On November 12, 2015, DfRR brought together an amazing group of speakers representing the broadest cross-section of professions involved in climate change to highlight both the short- and long-term impacts of extreme heat and the risks we take if we fail to act. The committee organized panels and case studies in terms of scale, from the most global challenges to the most local opportunities. Conflicting and contrasting solutions were welcome, making for an oftentimes lively debate. The symposium also illuminated the unresolved and the yet-to-be-determined.

What we Heard

We heard how extreme heat alters geographic zones, allowing disease-carrying insects to thrive in areas where they’ve never thrived before, changing vegetation and animal migration patterns, altering the salinity and pH of the oceans, and increasing health risks to populations worldwide. We learned, in detail, how the human body responds to heat, its limits and zones of comfort, and defined the populations most at risk. The recounting of the very deadly heat waves in Chicago (1995), with 798 deaths, and Paris (2003), with 14,800 deaths, underscored the urgency to act.

We heard about the fundamental marriage of water and heat in the environment. We learned how architecture and the full spectrum of design professions can take on environmental threats and use invention and innovation to respond, turning challenges into opportunities. We heard about new materials, new technologies, and new methods being investigated and placed in our tool box.

We learned that we can draw on practices from around the world and knowledge from our not-so- distant past to develop passive environmental strategies. We heard about the Heat Island Effect, a phenomenon that occurs when urban environments cannot shed the heat they absorb. We learned how best practices and nature-based green techniques can offset the heating of our cities. Urban design strategies, like strategic shading, can cool streets. White, green, and blue roofs can be used on the thousands of acres of flat roofs in cities like New York. Porous and light-colored paved surfaces – sidewalks and roads – ameliorate environmental impacts. The biomimetic techniques developed by Grimshaw Architects to cool buildings and Brian Stone’s research on America’s hottest city showed us small- and large-scale strategies to mitigate heat.

And we heard so much more.

Going Forward: Call to Arms, Call to Action

The symposium illuminated issues and opportunities, with a focus on the next generation of design professionals. DfRR has looked ahead 30, 50, 80, and even 100 years to prepare for potentially disastrous scenarios. The approaches reviewed here in this symposium report suggest that we – architects, landscape architects, and urban designers – can lead or be part of robust collaborative teams of scientists, health professionals, government officials, and others to help prepare for and solve rapid climate change. As with all risk-reduction strategies, interdisciplinary collaboration is the name of the game.

If we continue to view our environment as a built-to- last system, we will fail to address the rapid climate changes that are taking place. We, as an industry, must invent, innovate, and create new systems that can adapt over time.

There is much work ahead. The 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP21), orchestrated by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, concluded with an agreement to “reaffirm the goal of limiting global temperature increase well below two degrees Celsius, while urging efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees.”2 As the first agreement of its kind, it represents the beginning of a new era. Extreme Heat is a call for the design professions to use their skills to address this pressing issue. Our hope is that the symposium and publication will provide architects and those on the path to licensure with a better understanding of how to serve the health, safety, and welfare of humankind.


Written by Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, DPACSA and Illya Azaroff, AIA


1 Extreme heat is only now a major risk identified by the White House and the National Resilience Framework (NRF). It is high priority with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US Department of Defense, US Department of Health and Human Services, United Nations, World Health Organization, and Offices of Emergency Management from around the country.