Berkeley should take steps to mitigate the urban heat island effect

CITY AFFAIRS: It’s time for Berkeley to solve its temperature inequity problem

Illustration of a neighborhood slowly becoming more "green"
Jericho Tang/Staff

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Memorial Day weekend began with heat advisories across the state, including parts of the East Bay. This could signal a grueling summer in Berkeley, where the many residents live without air conditioning. City dwellers will feel the effects of climate change in their daily lives due to the urban heat island effect — when roads, buildings, roofs and concrete absorb and reemit heat from the sun, causing higher temperatures in urban areas. 

People of color are more likely to live in urban heat islands — one of the underlying causes could be Berkeley’s past discriminatory housing policies. In the 1930s and 1940s, the federal government redlined specific neighborhoods, denying mortgages and the possibility for homeownership to Black residents — these communities continue to be marginalized today. Efforts to map the trees in Berkeley reveal that tree density throughout the city is eerily reminiscent of redlining maps. The formerly redlined communities of South and West Berkeley have sparse trees and foliage compared to wealthier areas of the city.

The effects of temperature inequity are broad; they can’t just be fixed with a ceiling fan. Warmer temperatures react with smog particles, leading to higher rates of asthma and respiratory illness. Research has demonstrated that heat and a lack of green space can also exacerbate mental health issues. The urban heat island effect is an issue of environmental and economic justice — temperature-mitigating technology such as air conditioning and reflective roofs are more accessible to wealthier residents. 

Addressing temperature inequity is a step toward rectifying the Bay Area’s discriminatory past. Climate change is commonly understood as a global issue. But it has localized ramifications and, therefore, localized solutions. 

The city of Berkeley should draw inspiration from other cities across the country that have taken bold steps to address temperature inequity.

Los Angeles is rolling out a new type of cement that reflects, rather than absorbs, sunlight. It results in sidewalks that are nearly 20 degrees cooler.

The city of Denver recently passed a sales tax ordinance that will fund the creation and preservation of outdoor green spaces and the expansion of urban tree cover.

In 2017, New York City started Cool Neighborhoods NYC, which aims to fund reflective roofs and tree planting in heat-vulnerable neighborhoods.

We can’t let Berkeley’s seemingly mild climate lull us into complacency. On June 15, Berkeley City Council will meet to finalize the 2022 city budget. The city of Berkeley should invest in researching, planning and realizing infrastructural changes to bring relief to residents living in urban heat islands. Infrastructural change takes years, and temperature threats are looming. The time to rapidly address temperature inequity was yesterday. But the next best time is today.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the summer 2021 opinion editor, Sarah Siegel.