Activists Work to Cool Down Sweltering ‘Heat Island' Near Boston

The city is one of many where temperatures soar higher than neighboring communities because of pollution, a lack of green space and other conditions -- a 'heat island' made worse by climate change


Summertime in Chelsea, Massachusetts, outside Boston means high electric bills for 53-year-old Neris Amaya and worsening asthma for her children and grandchildren.

The air conditioners in the three-family house run nonstop, her bills can reach $600 a month and everyone carries inhalers. Last summer, an attack sent her then 4-year-old grandson, Leandro, to the hospital.

Chelsea gets hot, with temperatures reaching 95 to 100 degrees in certain neighborhoods on an otherwise 80 to 85 degree day, said Roseann Bongiovanni, executive director of GreenRoots, an environmental and social justice organization. The city is considered an urban heat island, noticeably steamier than surrounding places because of the built-up environment. Too little greenery and too much concrete magnify the summer temperatures and leave residents sweltering and sometimes sick.

“There’s not much shade,” Amaya, 53, said as Iliana Panameño, a staff member of GreenRoots, translated. “There are not many trees.”

Neris Amaya with her grandchildren on July 8, 2021. Chelsea, Massachusetts.
GreenRoots portraits. © 2021 Marilyn Humphries

To try to alleviate some of the heat, GreenRoots has started a “Cool Block” intervention around the city’s Boys & Girls Club, not far from the Chelsea Creek. To remake the block, a white roof is being installed on the Boys & Girls Club, and a partially paved corner that is used for parking is being transformed into a small park of 1.8 square miles.

For Earth Day, volunteers are planting 47 trees -- Redbud, Winter King Hawthorne, swamp white oak and Patriot elm -- to provide some of that missing shade. 

The group first monitored how hot it got with heat sensors — at one bench, the temperature rose to 131 degrees — interviewed residents about how they dealt with the heat, determined changes it could make and later will evaluate the success. In all the project will cost between $800,000 and $1 million and is still two years from completion.

“If it’s successful, how we can replicate that throughout the rest of the city but then also share our results to other environmental justice communities so they can implement similar approaches,” Bongiovanni said.

A Persistent Problem for Cities

Heat islands are a growing problem across the country. Neighborhoods already struggling with a dearth of green and unfairly burdened by pollution and other environmental problems are getting even hotter because of climate change. 

Heat islands are far from new. According to David Hondula, director of Phoenix's Office of Heat Response and Mitigation, they were first documented in the 1800s in places such as London and have been measured in cities all over the world. The temperature differences between the center of a city and the surrounding areas can be on the order of 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit, Hondula said in an earlier interview with NBC.

They are caused by the building materials used for cities, the geometry of cities, and the machines that are in them, such as cars or air conditioners, all releasing heat. 

And as the Earth warms, more attention is being paid to them. 

Widespread Racial Disparities

A study published last year in Nature Communications found that people of color were exposed to more extreme heat than white people in nearly every major city of the United States. During the summer of 2017, that was true for the average non-white person in all but six of the country’s 175 largest urban areas, a disparity that surprised even one of the co-authors.

“I expected to see that people of color had a higher exposure to this heat island effect in maybe a majority of cities,” Glenn Sheriff, an environmental economics professor at Arizona State University, told The Associated Press. “But what we found was that something like 97% of the cities had these disparities.”

A separate study from the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy released last year also found that low-income neighborhoods with more Black, Hispanic and Asian residents were hotter than wealthier and predominately white neighborhoods.  For example, nearly all of Los Angeles County south of the San Gabriel Mountains was red on a map, showing that the area was five degrees Celsius warmer than the average summer temperature. The exceptions were such wealthy communities as Beverly Hills and Malibu. 

Nor were property values the only factor. Instead Sheriff’s study found that the average person of color was exposed to hotter temperatures than the average person living below the poverty line, although only 10% of people of color were classified as poor.

Some scholars blame racism. A 2018 report in Philadelphia, "Beat the Heat" noted that low-income residents and people of color are more likely to live in the hotter neighborhoods where a history of red-lining and disinvestment have contributed to an aging housing stock.

“Racial inequity in heat exposure is in part a result of exclusionary policies like redlining, which have played a major role in shaping where people live in Philadelphia,” said the report, a relief plan for the Hunting Park neighborhood. 

In the summer it can get as much as 22 degrees warmer than other parts of the Philadelphia thanks to fewer trees and more asphalt and black roofs. Only about 9% of Hunting Park is covered by trees, compared to 19% for all of Philadelphia, and more than 75% of the neighborhood is made up of paved surfaces, roads and buildings, compared to 52% of the city. One result: an asthma rate two or three times higher.

Jet Fuel, Road Salt and Other Pollutants

Chelsea is a city of 40,787 residents, with almost 68% of them Hispanic, according to the 2020 Census figures. It and neighboring East Boston are among the hardest hit communities in Massachusetts as far as environmental inequities, Bongiovanni said. 

A food garden in Chelsea, Massachusetts, where the environmental justice organization GreenRoots is trying to bring relief from soaring temperatures in the summer.

Chelsea provides storage for jet fuel used at Logan International Airport, 80% of the region’s heating fuel and road salt for 350 communities. It is home to the New England Produce Center, which necessitates trucks coming in and out. 

“Chelsea and East Boston provide a critical role for much of the region’s industrial benefits and we carry those burdens,” she said.

The pilot project to remake the block is part of the group’s work to boost the environmental health of the community -- improving the air quality, creating a new microgrid to bring clean energy to residents and providing more public access to the Chelsea Creek. 

The funding for the “Cool Block” initiative is piece-meal, Bongiovanni said, made up of grants, corporate donations and pro bono work. The trees planted for Earth Day, for example, are being paid for by $4,000 corporate donation. The state Department of Conservation and Recreation will provide them, the city of Chelsea will dig the pits and volunteers will plant them.

One concern is the methane leaks that a study suggests have been killing trees in the city. The study, published in the journal Environmental Pollution, found that trees that were dead or that were dying were 30 times more likely to have methane in their tree pits than healthy trees.

“There were places in the city where you’d plant trees year after year in the same tree pits and they die year after year but they’re being watered, they’re being tended and we really had to literally get at the root of the problem,” said the study’s co-author, Madeleine K. Scammell, an associate professor of Environmental Health at Boston University School of Public Health. “Why are these trees dying?”

And until the gas leaks are repaired, and the city moves to a greener source of energy, the trees could keep dying.

The natural gas industry is working to lower methane emissions, said Stephen Leahy, vice president of policy at the Northeast Gas Association.

The natural gas distribution companies, the local utilities, have reduced methane emissions 70% in the last 30 years, he said. The interstate pipeline companies have lowered emissions by 29% over the same timeframe  Total system methane emissions nationwide are down by 15.7%.

Mayra Romero on August 2, 2021 in Chelsea, Massachusetts.
GreenRoots Community Land Trust Honoring Project. © 2021 Marilyn Humphries.

Like Neris Amaya, Mayra Romero watches her utility bills skyrocket in the summer, up to $300 a month for her apartment. She believes the heat has gotten more intense compared to six or seven years ago. Three years ago, the trees on the street where she lives were removed and never replaced, she said. She said she was told they were no longer healthy.

Romero has two children, one who is 24 years old and the other 14. She has lived in Chelsea for 15 years and owns the Delicias Salvadoreñas restaurant there with her family. A longtime employee of the restaurant, she and her family bought it two years ago when the previous owner decided to sell.

Romero, 45, said she knows the air in the city is contaminated from the many industrial buildings. Too many people have asthma. She and Amaya, hired by GreenRoots to go door to door to help residents get coronavirus vaccines, have both been activists for a more environmental healthy city. They would like to see more trees planted across the city and green spaces throughout, including perhaps on the roofs on new condominiums under construction.

In preparation for a hotter future, Los Angeles became the 3rd local government in the U.S. to hire a "chief heat officer." The CHO will examine how the city buildings and pavement create "heat islands" that lead to cities being much warmer than the suburbs. Ladd Keith, a city planning expert and professor at the University of Arizona, explains how cities are thinking ahead.
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