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How One of America’s Hottest Cities Is Making Summer a Little More Bearable

Dangerous heat isn't new to Phoenix, but its efforts to keep people safe in triple-digit temperatures are.

Downtown Phoenix
Downtown Phoenix
There’s no escaping the summer heat in Phoenix. To help alleviate the blistering temperatures, the city -- like many others -- has long provided heat-relief services, such as cooling centers, to help residents who have nowhere else to turn. But recently, the city has stepped up those efforts, largely by tapping an overlooked resource: volunteers from the community.

Local residents are a big part of the city’s “We’re Cool” effort to spread the word about cooling and hydration centers in city libraries, senior centers and churches. They’re also planting trees to provide shade, particularly in lower-income neighborhoods where residents without cars must wait at bus stops or walk to do errands. And the local volunteers are even helping city officials decide where those trees -- and other heat-shielding resources -- should go.

In other words, they're helping the city make better use of its current infrastructure for coping with the heat while also improving that infrastructure in the long-term. “We all live and work in the area, but the fact of the matter is that the people living in the community day to day are the best resource to tell you what is needed and how you connect to the people who need it,” says Michael Hammett, the city’s chief service officer. “They’re not here to do a task, they’re here to inform this project every step of the way.”

While many areas of the country deal with sweltering weather, few have to contend with temperatures as high as Phoenix’s. Of course it's in the middle of the desert, but the urban landscape makes things even hotter, with the city pavement creating a "heat island." Last month, it got so hot that airplanes couldn't take off from the Phoenix airport.

Those types of conditions can be especially brutal for low-income residents, who may not have cars or air conditioning in their homes to shield them from the heat.

Phoenix actually used to have significantly more trees, along with tree-lined canals. But in the automobile-and-air-conditioning era, much of the city's tree cover has been lost to development. And many of the trees that have been planted are palm trees, which look nice but don't offer much shade.

So in 2010, Phoenix set out to increase the tree canopy to 25 percent of the city’s area by 2030, which would essentially double the existing coverage. If that goal is met, Arizona State University researchers say it could lead to a reduction in average temperature of 4.3 degrees Fahrenheit.

The city plan stressed the need for hearty trees that could withstand the heat, that don't have shallow roots that would buckle sidewalks or interfere with underground utilities, and that don't require a lot of water.

Meeting such an ambitious goal requires a lot of work. That's why the city is turning to volunteers.

For example, residents in the Triangle, a small neighborhood just east of downtown, were already interested in adding more shade trees, but they didn’t have the funding or the support from city government that they needed. (Planting trees can require the coordination of the city arborist, the streets department and local utilities.) So the city found a lead volunteer from the area who helped recruit a team of 30 more residents. They helped decide where the trees should go, opting to concentrate on routes to nearby schools and churches. The residents now help make sure the trees are watered and report to the city when trees die and need replacement. Overall, they planted 33 trees.

That's a small start in a city with more than 3 million trees, but Hammett hopes it will be a template for other neighborhoods to follow.

The volunteers developed a checklist for other neighborhoods if they want to try similar efforts. Several other neighborhoods undertook projects of their own this year. The state climatologist also installed sensors in the Triangle area to track how long it takes for the new trees to reduce temperatures, and by how much, so city officials know how effective the treatments are.

The effort to engage neighborhood volunteers comes as a result of grants Phoenix received from Cities of Service, a nonprofit group founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. One grant helps pay for the office of the chief service officer. Another focuses on efforts to make the city more resilient to extreme heat. A third supports efforts to revitalize low-income neighborhoods (Governing's J.B. Wogan has reported on the “Love Your Block” revitalization program here). The resilience and neighborhood revitalization grants pay for AmeriCorps VISTA participants to help mayors coordinate volunteer efforts.

“Often volunteering is viewed [by cities] as a one-day effort, but that’s an old-school way of looking at volunteerism,” says Mauricio Garcia, the deputy director of Cities of Service. “The new school is going to citizens where they’re at, whether that’s in their homes, at a bar or through a respected local organization. It’s building a relationship and not just going to them when something is needed. The connection over time is important in building trust.”

It was the AmeriCorps workers who helped launch Phoenix’s wide-ranging publicity and additional services provided through the “We’re Cool” campaign, says Hammett. They wanted to know what the city was doing to help low-income people during extremely hot weather. So they helped produce a map showing all of the places people could stop in to cool down or get water. And they determined that they should focus their outreach efforts on people taking public transportation.

But they turned to local volunteers to pound the pavement.

Last year, one young Phoenix resident led the effort to distribute the maps as part of his Eagle Scout service project, using more than 30 volunteers to hand out 1,500 maps. Local transit agencies also provided free advertising. Several of the cooling stations said they saw an increase in people using their services after the publicity.

This year, the effort grew even bigger.

The city turned to a church and a neighborhood organization to lead the publicity campaign. The city library system also got on board by offering maps at their libraries and using many of those libraries as cooling stations. The police department have also helped publicize the efforts. In effect, Hammett says, the “We’re Cool” campaign has become a citywide effort.

“We feel like people in need during this year’s extreme heat are in a much better position [than before the We’re Cool campaign] to have the support and know about the support they need,” Hammett says.

Dan is Governing’s transportation and infrastructure reporter.
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