To Adapt Florida To Extreme Heat, Planners Want To Hear Residents’ Experiences

For Jared Genova, summer weather in Miami goes one of two ways.

“When it’s not raining, it’s hot,” he says.

Genova is an urban strategist with ISeeChange, a technology company whose app helps communities document their experiences with flooding, extreme heat and storms. ISeeChange’s work in South Florida is part of a trend: As temperatures rise, companies, nonprofits and local governments are asking residents to share how the climate crisis affects them personally. They believe adaptation plans informed by South Floridians’ experiences are the most effective way to address the different climate risks different communities face.

In a series of public workshops in 2019, Miami residents spoke with City of Miami staff about their concerns for the future of their neighborhoods and their priorities for responding to environmental risks. Here, a resident speaks at a workshop in Overtown. (Photo credit: Kate Stein)

As Genova puts it, “The more humans we can have involved in responding to climate change, the better it will be for people who most need it to be better.”

A person born in Miami in 1990 today experiences an average of 43 more days per year with temperatures above 90 degrees, according to a heat tracking tool from The New York Times. A person born in 1940 sweats through 48 more extreme heat days today. The magnitude of warming varies in different parts of Florida, but across the state, average annual temperatures are consistently getting hotter.

The rising heat doesn’t impact everyone in the same way.

“People who are wealthy and have air conditioning and can afford their own cars, they are going to be less affected,” says Ludovica Martella, a researcher contracted by Miami-Dade County to produce a report on extreme heat. The greatest risks, she says, are to South Florida residents who have another, simultaneous vulnerability. They may be elderly, pregnant or have a chronic health condition. They may work outdoors. They may have to walk in the hot sun to bus stops that are not covered or shaded by trees.

Read more: Rising Temperatures Intensify Risks for Florida Farmworkers

And, since federal law does not require A/C in public housing, many residents who live on low or fixed incomes have to do without. Wealthier residents, meanwhile, may not experience these kinds of vulnerabilities.

Highly-developed areas can experience temperatures that are 15°F to 20°F hotter than areas with less pavement and more trees. (Source: Climate Central)

In Miami-Dade County, government staff and climate justice advocates say these inequities make it critical that heat adaptation plans be informed by residents’ experiences.

Right now, it’s not clear how many residents lack access to air conditioning in their homes. Jane Gilbert, Miami-Dade County’s interim chief heat officer, says the county will be working with academic partners to gather this data. In the meantime, she says, some park and community centers and libraries are available as air-conditioned cooling sites when the heat index — a measure of how hot it feels, based on air temperature combined with humidity — is above 113 degrees Fahrenheit. On these excessive heat days, the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust will also open shelters for people experiencing homelessness.

But many of these sites do not have backup energy sources to provide power in the event of a power outage due to a hurricane or other severe weather event. So the county has partnered with the D.C.-based Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, which heads a global heat resilience alliance, to create “resilience hubs” that protect residents against concurrent climate risks, such as a hurricane followed by a heat wave. Separately, the county has also received funding to retrofit a building in Hadley Park in Liberty City.

Gilbert says these efforts will include public outreach meetings so residents can share their needs and priorities.

“Of course, with 2.7+ million people (in Miami-Dade County), this will need to be done in a targeted way,” she says. The final format and locations are still to be determined, but the county is considering selecting what they consider a representative sample: one rural neighborhood, one suburban and one urban, each with a high percentage of low- to moderate-income residents.

Ultimately, Gilbert says, the goal is to ensure residents can “co-ideate solutions for the County and community” to address heat-related concerns.

Read more: Underserved Miami-Dade Residents Designed Climate Justice Solutions. Local Government Staff Listened

Climate activists protest outside a Democratic presidential debate at the Adrienne Arsht Center in Miami in June 2019. (Photo credit: Kate Stein)

Empowering community members to drive the design of climate solutions is a core mission of the CLEO Institute, says Olivia Collins, senior director of programs at the climate education nonprofit. Caroline Lewis, CLEO’s founder, created the organization in 2010 to mobilize the masses for climate action. Her initial work was going into Miami neighborhoods to hear from residents and community leaders about their experiences and knowledge of climate change. Collins says four themes emerged: heat, hurricane preparedness, flooding and gentrification. Most importantly, residents in frontline communities made it clear that they wanted much more climate education and a seat at the table in resilience planning.

Today, those community concerns continue to drive CLEO’s priorities for advocacy and education. Supported by a Kresge Foundation grant, CLEO is partnering with Catalyst Miami, The Miami Foundation and other local nonprofits to develop a suite of 15 to 20 policy recommendations that address local climate threats through an equity lens. Collins says that as part of this work, CLEO recently conducted focus groups and surveys involving more than 300 residents and health care practitioners. Heat risk exacerbated by the climate crisis remains a top concern.

Genova and Claudia Sebastiani, ISeeChange’s Miami community manager, say the work ISeeChange has done on flooding shows how the app can facilitate real-time engagement between residents experiencing the effects of climate change and city staff working on responses. Currently, ISeeChange has a partnership with the City of Miami in which residents’ posts about flooding within city limits go directly to staff in the city’s public works and resilience department; in New Orleans, a similar effort enabled residents to work with city planners to improve drainage in flooding hotspots and restore a beloved sports recreation complex.

The app can be used to document heat risks, as well. Last year, the New Orleans health department and NOAA partnered with ISeeChange to help residents track summer temperatures and its effects on their health. Genova says there’s potential for similar efforts in Florida.

“If you are experiencing extreme heat in a certain way… that’s important,” he says. “It’s our job to hold space for that and to amplify it into a policy conversation.”

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