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.