Phoenix names a heat officer, with a goal of easing the risk of rising temperatures
Phoenix has appointed one of the leading experts on urban heat to run a program the city hopes will save lives and reduce urban temperatures even as climate change warms the surrounding desert.
Mayor Kate Gallego on Wednesday introduced David Hondula as director of the nation’s first publicly funded office of heat response and mitigation. The longtime Arizona State University environmental scientist and heat researcher will retain a post at the school but work full-time coordinating heat-reduction strategies.
Miami appointed a similar position this summer, but used private foundation funds.
Hondula said changes, including planting trees, installing shade structures and adding light-colored surfaces to streets and roofs, can make the city cooler. Wide deployment could more than offset climate change, he said. Experiments with reflective pavement, for instance, have shown cooling by 10 degrees or more on the surface.
“We could actually see an environment that is more comfortable than it is today,” Hondula said.
The dangers of extreme heat in Phoenix
Without widespread heat-mitigation, Phoenix has grown hotter both through climate change and the tendency of urban areas to concentrate and retain heat.
Using technology and public outreach can help identify people most at risk and in need of help or access to public cooling centers, Hondula said.
The city’s current budget invests $2.8 million in climate mitigation. That budget will cover 14 positions across city government, including Hondula's. The mayor has tasked him with seeking innovative solutions while monitoring other departments’ activities to ensure a coordinated approach.
“Heat is an issue we have to get right,” Gallego said.
Last year, heat killed 191 people in Phoenix, and Hondula said that toll led Maricopa County in per-capita heat-related deaths. As of last week, Maricopa County Health Department has reported 173 confirmed deaths and 161 under investigation this year. In recent years, the county has set a new record for heat deaths each year.
Hondula has studied the effects of climate change and extreme heat and possible solutions for more than a decade, including in Phoenix neighborhoods.
In 2017, The Arizona Republic enlisted him as an adviser in reporting that deployed his lab’s sensors to disparate neighborhoods to demonstrate that the city’s landscaping haves and have-nots can experience nearly a 10-degree difference. This year, researchers looking at 20 urban areas in the Southwest found that the poorest 10% of neighborhoods on average were 4 degrees hotter than the wealthiest neighborhoods in their area.
Climate inequity: Phoenix's heat is rising — and so is the danger
Finding new solutions for rising temperatures
Hondula did not specify which new solutions he might propose, but said he’ll share some in the months ahead. Asked about his first priority, he said it is to hire a tree and shade administrator to work in his office, followed by a staffer to work on cooling in the “built environment” and infrastructure.
The city in 2010 set a goal to grow the tree canopy to shade 25% of its land by 2030. The actual coverage has remained stalled around 13% since then. Hondula attributed that to both the plan’s adoption during the fiscally tight Great Recession and the fact that Phoenix loses trees every year at the same time it is planting more.
“Treading water has been a success of sorts,” he said. But, “we need to accelerate.”
As the city increases planting, both Hondula and the mayor said, the government will pay special attention to ensuring that neighborhoods with fewer resources get their share, with the water infrastructure to keep new trees growing. It will mean per-tree expenditures may appear more costly in the hottest neighborhoods.
“We really put equity at the forefront,” Gallego said.
Urban heat: Outdoor workers could be exposed to even more days of extreme heat
Among the heat deaths that Maricopa County has reported this year, 50 occurred indoors. The county found that 30 of those victims were in places with non-functioning air conditioning, five lacked air conditioning, and one was without power.
New York City has begun to furnish some residents with air conditioning, Hondula noted, without committing to such a program in Phoenix. Other solutions might involve technology. In the same way that smartphone apps allow people to check on their homes or feed their pets remotely, he said, there could be ways of monitoring indoor temperatures for willing participants and helping get them to safety when their home is too hot.
Other ideas will emerge through collaboration, Hondula said, and he believes the city’s funding for his new office creates momentum that will pay off.
“We’re optimistic about what the future of this city can look like,” he said.
Brandon Loomis covers environmental and climate issues for The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com. Reach him at email@example.com.
Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.