Heat islands — swaths of urban landscape with few trees, little greenspace, and lots of concrete and paved surfaces — are creating hotter temperatures and unhealthy conditions in some New Bedford neighborhoods, experts say. And the city is lagging behind other urban communities in addressing health issues related to excessive heat.
“The impacts of heat on health are underestimated,” says Patricia Fabian, a professor of environmental health at Boston University who studies urban heat. “It’s the biggest climate-related hazard for health.”
New Bedford, she says, isn’t spared from the heat island effect, despite its coastal location.
A New Bedford Light analysis of surface temperature and ambient weather data, or temperature of the air, found wide heat disparities that correspond to areas with fewer trees and more asphalt and concrete surfaces.
On hot days, surface temperatures near New Bedford’s Coggeshall Street can climb up to 20 degrees hotter than in neighboring Dartmouth. This helps to make New Bedford’s air temperatures persistently 2-3 degrees warmer than at a Dartmouth weather sensor, even though the locations are less than 5 miles apart.
In one North End neighborhood near Acushnet Avenue, the average afternoon surface temperatures on roads, sidewalks, and roofs can surpass 100 degrees during the summer months. That’s as much as 10 degrees hotter than in neighborhoods near Buttonwood Park in New Bedford’s leafier West End.
“It’s called the silent killer,” Fabian said of excessive heat, which is responsible for more deaths than any other natural disaster, such as floods or hurricanes, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
“Everybody is at risk of these effects,” said Greg Wellenius, another professor studying climate and public health at Boston University. “Kids playing soccer, high school athletes, [those] out hiking on weekends, outdoor workers including your roofers and landscapers … and the elderly.”
When dense, urban neighborhoods are also low-income neighborhoods, Wellenius says there’s an increased risk of heat-related illnesses, including heat stroke, but also exacerbated risks for heart attacks, preterm births, kidney issues, and respiratory illness.
During last week’s visit to the South Coast, President Joe Biden called climate change and the resulting heat events “a clear and present danger.” And under the sweltering afternoon sun at Somerset’s Brayton Point, he announced new federal funding that can be used for air conditioning and community cooling centers.
New Bedford still developing its heat plan
New Bedford does not currently operate community cooling centers and is still in the early stages of developing strategies for dealing with excessive heat, according to city officials. But the city does run a tree-planting program, and officials recommend that residents use air-conditioned public libraries to find relief from extreme heat.
In 2014, New Bedford launched “NB Resilient,” a multi-department initiative that aims to improve sustainability. Among its key initiatives was a plan to increase the urban tree canopy that would, in turn, “reduce the urban heat island effect,” according to the NB Resilient website. To date, more than 3,000 trees have been planted, but the percentage of tree canopy cover in New Bedford is still lower than in cities like Brockton, Quincy and Worcester.
Most environmental planning in New Bedford has historically focused on flood mitigation and industrial cleanup, according to Michele Paul, New Bedford’s director of environmental stewardship. She added that responding to heat has not been a primary concern.
Heat is “something that is emerging as a discussion,” she said. “So, to say that there is a plan in place and this is exactly what we’re doing, we’re not at that point yet.”
Experts like Fabian say that while planting trees is certainly helpful, cities can be doing a lot more to protect residents. “Because if it’s 105 degrees outside, no amount of trees is going to cool that.”
In East Boston, Fabian is leading a project that tracks both the external and internal temperatures of a neighborhood and relates the data to health outcomes of local residents. Nonprofits and city government use this data to determine the best locations for cooling centers and to educate vulnerable populations about rebates for air conditioners and home-sealing insulation, like those offered by Mass Save.
Educating people of their options is important, Fabian says, “particularly in vulnerable populations where people have two jobs or English is a second language.”
During last week’s oppressive heat wave, Quincy, Brockton and East Boston all had at least one cooling center available to residents.
In comparison, New Bedford's response to excessive heat is in its nascent stages. Despite repeated promises, the mayor's office was unable to provide specific data on its tree-planting program in time for this publication.
As a reaction to the heat wave, the city did extend the hours of lifeguards at local beaches, but there are currently no actionable plans for cooling centers. A spokesman for the mayor pointed out that the downtown library roof has recently been repainted to help cool that building, a strategy that experts endorse.
The city has previously boasted of its "digital inventory of street trees" with location and species information. Lacking this dataset, a walk near the North End’s Acushnet Avenue or the southern peninsula’s Ruth Street and surrounding neighborhood offers visual evidence that trees haven't yet reached many low-income neighborhoods.
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And while more trees would have some cooling effect, a response that provides cooling options, addresses transportation needs, and incentivizes smarter housing development is recommended by experts.
“Cities and towns were built for the weather that was here 100 years ago," said Wellenius. Infrastructure, home amenities, and even the physiology of New Englanders makes them vulnerable to the effects of heat, which include adverse mental health effects, too. Wellenius has pointed to studies that indicate a correlation between heat and increased ER visits for substance abuse and mood disorders, as well as evidence of lowered standardized test performance.
The number of 90 degree days is rising in Massachusetts cities, according to a Boston Globe analysis of weather data from NOAA. Over the next century, climate predictions indicate that average temperatures will rise and extreme heat events will become more common and hotter.
In some New Bedford Neighborhoods, like downtown or the North End between Riverside and Brooklawn Parks, the city’s own maps show impervious surfaces can make up 80% to 100% of the land area, which can drastically worsen the effects of heat.
Across the country and around the world, heat is profoundly disrupting daily life. As heat advisories covered almost all of eastern Massachusetts last week, a heat wave in Europe ignited forest fires in Greece and Spain; the hottest temperatures ever recorded in the United Kingdom melted a runway in London; and in the U.S., more than 100 million people and 28 states were under a heat advisory. Local temperatures are expected to climb again this week.
Families find their own ways to cope
Daniella Mejia, 20, and Nicole Mejia, 29, have to get creative to deal with the baking heat on the city's southern peninsula near Ruth Street.
On a recent afternoon, they set up a small inflatable pool beneath a tarp to make their driveway shadier and more enjoyable for the children they were watching: Daniella's 1-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old cousin.
It was just after 3 p.m., and the temperature wouldn’t budge below 86 degrees, though it felt closer to 90 with the humidity. It was even hotter inside their home.
Daniella said her cousin will spend up to two hours at a time in this little pool on hot days. Sometimes they drive to Six Flags or another water park, but splashing in the driveway is the most accessible option.
In this neighborhood, there are almost no trees; housing is almost exclusively the aging, tenement-style triple deckers; and for many residents, including the Mejia family, English is not their first language.
In Harrington Park, Sheena Fonseca, 37, found a merciful patch of shade where she could sit and watch her daughter play. It’s one of the few public destinations where city residents can cool off, especially the children who run through the water spraying from brightly colored fountains.
Fonseca has lived in this neighborhood her whole life. The area is densely populated with single and multi-family homes, including several where her mother, cousins, and other family members reside. Along the uneven concrete sidewalks, a few tall and splendid trees provide welcome shade.
“Less access to air conditioning, less energy efficient homes, older homes that might not be as easily cooled," each of these characteristics aligns with what makes people more vulnerable to the effects of extreme heat, said Michael Goodman, a professor who teaches housing policy at UMass Dartmouth.
Seeking strategies to beat the heat
Eric Andrade, the director of community, systems and climate for Groundwork Southcoast, noticed while growing up in Fall River that his own neighborhood had fewer trees and was more prone to flooding. Seeing the environment’s impact on daily life helped build an interest in climate and public health, which he thinks helps explain why he came on board as one of his organization’s first employees.
Now he hopes to support grassroots projects that are “by and for the residents of New Bedford,” pointing to the 150-bed community garden in Riverside Park and tree planting efforts around the city as early examples of what is possible.
One of Andrade’s biggest concerns is heat.
Earlier this year, Groundwork Southcoast, in collaboration with its national network, published a report on heat in New Bedford. It focuses on the historical trends that shaped some neighborhoods, telling the story of why the impervious surfaces and vulnerable populations are concentrated together.
Andrade said this is the first stage of a long-term project to battle the effects of heat. The first steps include “more education, more partnering with residents,” Andrade said, to “see what [residents] want rather than going in and doing a project.”
Enough research has been compiled to know which strategies can help, but Wellenius, the BU researcher, similarly said he believes that listening to local needs should drive policy response. In some areas with aging populations, for example, Wellenius said it might be more effective to focus efforts on subsidizing electricity during peak months of air conditioning rather than building centralized cooling centers.
"The hard thing about heat is that there isn't a one-size-fits-all solution," Wellenius said. He has seen people avoid cooling centers for reasons ranging from lack of transportation, to distrusting a police presence, to not wanting to leave a pet at home.
Now that Groundwork Southcoast’s heat report has been published, Andrade said he hopes to further a partnership with the city to combat the effects of rising temperatures.
“The city is a great partner in a lot of this work,” Andrade said. But he added, “Their capacity is definitely limited in personnel power.”
Paul, of the environmental department, noted that the city is overextended even in its current efforts to plant trees: "Once DPI (the Department of Public Infrastructure) does plant a tree, it’s impossible for DPI to get around to water all those trees,” she said. The current policy is to encourage local residents and volunteers to water those trees.
New Bedford, Paul notes, is one of the only cities in the country with two Superfund sites, or areas of serious environmental contamination that require federal assistance to clean, which has historically dominated the city’s environmental planning.
Meanwhile, residents in New Bedford’s North End and other hot neighborhoods must find their own strategies to cope.
As Andrade said, “it’s only going to get worse.”
Editor's note: This story was updated on Aug. 2, 2022, to include additional information about New Bedford's air-conditioned libraries, which can be used as a refuge from extreme heat.
Grace Ferguson / email@example.com / contributed reporting to this story.
Email Colin Hogan at firstname.lastname@example.org.