Richmond’s urban heat islands — Scott’s Addition, Jackson Ward, Manchester — put communities in danger

Manchester is one of the hottest neighborhoods in the city of Richmond—along with Scott’s Addition, Jackson Ward, Monroe Ward, the Diamond District and part of Virginia Commonwealth University.

These communities are a part of the city’s heat islands, where the temperatures are warmer than the majority of their surrounding areas. According to mapping data, large swaths of South Side and the East End are hotter than other areas in the city. Many factors contribute to the locations of Richmond’s heat islands, but on hot summer afternoons, one is most noticeable—a lack of trees for shade.

“It was extremely noticeable during the warmer months that we did not have street trees, and there’s a major lack of canopy coverage,” said Sheri Shannon, a former Manchester resident. “Even over things like the bus stop covers.”

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The urban heat island effect

Outside of the Science Museum of Virginia on a sweltering June afternoon, a construction crew was working on turning the former surface parking lot into a 6-acre public green space called The Green.

The $7.5 million project, which is expected to be completed in 2024, will offer a park-like space for recreation such as walking, relaxing and gathering. In November, the museum opened its new $14 million parking deck to the public. The four-level structure has 400 spaces, 25% more than was previously available in the surface lots adjacent to Broad Street.

The conversion of the large parking lot to a parking garage was the Science Museum’s effort to “depave” the grounds in an effort to reduce heat in the area. In a room on the first floor of the museum, SMV scientist Jeremy Hoffman said human landscapes, like pavement, asphalt and parking lots, have low albedo, wherein they absorb more of the sun’s energy during the day and re-emis it back into the air during the afternoon and into the evening.

“This elevates or increases the temperature in those places that are more paved over than in those places that have more natural nature-based landscapes,” Hoffman said.

This contributes to what is known as the urban heat island effect, he said, where cities almost always have higher temperatures than the outlying rural areas. Within Richmond, certain neighborhoods are also significantly hotter than others. The effects of heat islands become more noticeable during the summer months as Virginia continues to experience record-breaking extreme heat.

In Virginia, heat waves are characterized as a period of two or more days in which there is high heat and humidity with temperatures over 90 degrees, according to the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. Exposure to heat waves, classified as an extreme weather event by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, threatens community health and well-being as well as institutional, economic and social structures within a city.

Heat is the top weather-related killer in the U.S., and the impact is even stronger on those living in or by urban heat islands.

The solution to heat islands is a natural fix: trees.

In Richmond, the areas with the highest concentration of impervious surfaces—pavement, asphalt and parking lots—often have the hottest afternoon temperatures. These areas often have the least amount of tree coverage in the city as well, Hoffman said, referring to neighborhoods like Jackson Ward and Manchester.

Richmond’s hottest neighborhoods also tend to house more Black residents.

“There is a clear history of maintaining greenness and environmental amenities in particular areas of the city at the expense of others,” Hoffman said. “This goes not only back to but includes very clearly in time in history redlining, where entire neighborhoods were basically locked into the way that they either looked at that time or it was set into motion that these neighborhoods were going to have differing levels of investment and future development.”

Mapping heat and tree inequality

In the 1930s, the government-sponsored Home Owners’ Loan Corporation was given authority to evaluate residential areas for their “mortgage security.”

It soon became evident that the HOLC was disproportionately giving areas with a higher concentration of African American residents lower ratings—many of those communities received a “D” for “hazardous” conditions. As a result, there were less opportunities for residents in those areas to access mortgage financing and become homeowners.

These neighborhoods were also passed up on opportunities for growth and development.

Those areas were and remain high in their number of African American residents and continue to harbor the effects of redlining practices today—specifically, they are hotter and have less tree coverage.

“When you say to people it’s hotter in some parts of the city, it’s like ‘Oh okay,’ but when you have the scientific data that we went out and collected, it showed a 16-degree difference within less than a mile,” said Jennifer Guild, manager of communications and curiosity at the Science Museum. “That’s really impactful to have that data to be able to show people.”

In one of the nation’s largest heat-mapping projects, more than a dozen Virginia colleges and universities organized teams of volunteers in July 2021 to measure temperatures across the state. Richmond’s team, led by University of Richmond professor of biology and geography and the environment Todd Lookingbill, was part of a statewide project called “Heat Watch.” The statewide project expanded on a previous project by Lookingbill and his students back in 2017 in partnership with the Science Museum.

Based on the mapping data, Scott’s Addition, the Diamond District, Jackson Ward, Monroe Ward, Manchester and a section of VCU’s campus are the hottest neighborhoods in the city.

In four of the five neighborhoods—primarily located in the center of the city or toward the east—the percentage of tree canopy coverage is below 2%. In three of the neighborhoods, the amount of impervious surfaces covers more than 80% of the area.

The majority of the city’s tree canopy cover is located in the West End, where the percentage of coverage in one neighborhood reaches over 70%—and the average afternoon temperatures are cooler.

In addition to being cooler and having more trees, the median household income in West End neighborhoods are significantly higher than that of certain neighborhoods in the East End and parts of South Side. People living in low-income areas are more vulnerable to extreme heat. Whether it’s because of a lack of air conditioning or fewer cooling stations, like libraries and community centers, where people can cool down, it can put people at risk.

“When we have these extreme events, they can lead to heat exhaustion and people get sick and can die from that,” Lookingbill said. “And so that’s really a problem. There’s areas of extreme heat with areas of lower income where you may be less likely to have opportunities to escape the heat, and then it becomes really dangerous.”

Communities at risk

On a recent Sunday, families and friends gathered outside of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts on picnic blankets and patio tables. It was over 90 degrees.

Bobby Scott, a third-year medical student at VCU, sat at a table under a tree near the far side of the museum’s green space. It was cooler under there.

“Right now, we’re under a big beautiful tree that provides a lot of shade,” he said, “but there are a lot of neighborhoods that have a lot more pavement, asphalt and less green space.”

During his first week at medical school, Scott learned about the difference in the average life expectancy between Gilpin Court—63—and Westover Hills—83. Around the same time, he was taught about the Medical College of Virginia’s role in grave robbing at Black cemeteries for cadavers in anatomy labs.

Learning about the historical picture of Richmond’s health care system and today’s health outcomes in different parts of the city made Scott interested in understanding the gap and addressing them. There are a lot of gaps in Richmond’s health care system already, like the life expectancy, he said, and heat only exacerbates what’s already there.

“We’re interested in understanding these gaps in the social infrastructure, economic factors and the social determinants of health,” Scott said, “but then also incorporating a bigger scope, including these environmental impacts and how climate change sort of fits in and contributes to that—because really that’s what it comes down to.”

Scott, 28, is a student member of the Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action, a network of clinician leaders advocating for climate change solutions. He’s also the co-founder and co-president of VCU’s chapter of Medical Students for a Sustainable Future, a national organization that recognizes climate change as the 21st century’s biggest health threat and engages in ways to address it.

With the number of extremely hot days increasing each year, those who are most vulnerable to heat—including older adults, young children, those with chronic illnesses, those living in poverty and more—are in danger.

Heat works as an additional stressor on the body similar to that of a virus, Scott said in an analogy. Like COVID-19, some people who are exposed to it may turn out okay, but others who have different health conditions are more vulnerable, he said.

“If you have a history of any sort of heart disease or cardiovascular disease, chronic kidney disease or respiratory conditions like COPD or asthma, there’s a lot of research associating temperatures with exacerbating those conditions,” Scott said.

Neighborhoods with more heat are, in turn, more likely to have chronic diseases, he said.

Determining the consequences of extreme heat in certain neighborhoods depends on heat vulnerability and heat exposure. A young construction worker with no previous health conditions and low vulnerability could still suffer the effects of heat because of prolonged exposure.

“In these neighborhoods that we know are urban heat islands … we have populations that are more vulnerable and we know that they’re being exposed more often,” Scott said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suggests using trees and vegetation to reduce heat islands, but the uneven distribution of Richmond’s trees puts many residents at risk of negative health outcomes. In a few areas, including the Diamond District and Carytown, the percentage of tree canopy coverage is less than 1%.

But Scott said it’s bigger than just planting trees.

“There’s not one solution to any of this—it’s not just going to plant more trees,” he said. “It really is building trust in the communities that are being impacted. And let’s see if we can work together to figure out what solutions may work but, ultimately, it needs to fit the individuals in that community and what’s going to work for that area.”

Planting seeds

The city itself has made attempts at understanding Richmond’s history and improving environmental justice. In addition to a plan for five new green spaces in South Side totaling 36 acres, RVAgreen2050, the region’s equity-centered sustainability initiative, is facilitating climate action and climate resilience.

Within the initiative, the city’s Office of Sustainability has prioritized racial equity and environmental justice, recognizing that, “Richmond’s history—whether measured in centuries, decades, years, months, weeks or days—is fraught with racism.”

Part of the initiative will identify neighborhoods in need of green space based on the city’s Climate Equity Index.

Moreover, Reforest Richmond, a collaborative campaign within the city, is also aiming to help increase Richmond’s urban tree canopy to 60% by 2037, according to the Richmond 300 Master Plan.

“I think there are a few examples that we should celebrate,” Hoffman said. “But then also, no city is doing everything that they can.”In the meantime, Hoffman and many organizations working directly with residents, including Groundwork RVA, have attempted to increase tree cover canopy and offset the harmful effects of heat islands in Richmond.

Hoffman and Groundwork RVA, a nonprofit that engages public school youth to transform city spaces into public green spaces, created Throwing Shade in RVA in 2018. The program taught students about urban heat islands and gave them the opportunity to engage in “community based greening strategies.” Since then, the partnership has continued to build on the data collected from the program.

Shannon is the co-founder of Southside ReLeaf, a community-based organization created in 2019 that is committed to environmental justice by improving the quality of life for South Side residents.

Aside from giving away trees—with hopes of reaching a goal of 750 total by the end of the year—Shannon said at the heart of environmental justice is making policy changes.

“We’re advocating for these changes and we’re advocating for the improvement of everyone’s quality of life,” she said. “Until we start to make progress and right the wrongs, then that responsibility will fall onto the residents.”

Twitter: @MaddyFitzWrites

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