Urban heat skyline 2

Cities are hot and getting hotter.

Urban landscapes that concentrate asphalt and buildings create “heat islands,” which are significantly hotter than surrounding areas. Climate change makes heat islands even hotter. The result is a spike in energy costs, even more greenhouse emissions, and a threat to public health – especially for the elderly, young children, and the poor – who are less able to keep themselves cool.

Many governments have emergency plans for heat waves. But only a few are adapting the built environment (buildings, roads, parking lots, etc.) to pro-actively reduce the heat. Fortunately, there are policy tools (building codes, zoning codes, etc.) that can shrink the heat islands. In fact, there are so many that governments struggle with the number of choices and volume of information. There are also limits on legal authority and financial resources to adopt the best policies.

Support for local decision-makers

In support of the Georgetown Climate Center, the Harrison Institute works with state and local governments to develop “heat-smart” communities. We help them identify policy tools, organize them into a coherent strategy, evaluate their authority, and tap federal resources to put plans into practice.

Urban heat tool kit 
In our first phase of work, we developed an Urban Heat Toolkit that analyzes four basic tools that state and local governments can use to physically reduce the temperatures of heat islands — green roofs, cool roofs, cool pavements, and urban forestry. The Tool Kit identifies the tools, discusses how different cities are promoting each, and provides a decision-making framework to help local officials weigh the costs compared to public health, energy savings and environmental benefits.

Green roof in DC 2
Local implementation

During our second phase of work, we have begun to work with local governments that are designing and implementing their strategies to adapt to urban heat.

Climate policy in the District of Columbia
DC heat map 3At the request of the D.C. Government's Department of the Environment, we are contributing to two overlapping policies, the D.C. Sustainability Plan and the D.C. Climate Adaptation Plan.  Our work focuses on building, zoning, and other codes and applying the decision-making criteria in our toolkit to help the D.C. Government develop a strategy to shrink its heat islands.

Case study of Milwaukee
With assistance from the city of Milwaukee, we completed a case study of horizontal coordination among seven city agencies that have jurisdiction to prevent harms of urban heat.  The study showed that some current programs (e.g., stormwater management) have significant benefits for adapting to heat.  It also showed what additional tools the city could develop under existing charter powers and what it could do with additional legislative authority.

Federal integration

In a third phase of work, we have begun to examine the impact of federal laws and programs on state and local adaptation efforts.

Federal funding opportunities
We are studying several federal programs that could provide financial resources to help state and local governments adapt, starting with weatherization assistance programs.

Vertical integration
In our next phase of work, we will explore state and federal laws that create barriers to implementing local initiatives (e.g., the impact of federal regulations for public housing projects on local governments' ability to protect residents).