Academy leads effort to map Philly’s heat and air quality

This summer the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University will lead a campaign to map heat and air quality in Philadelphia, working with community scientists so that residents have a stronger voice in the planning and implementation of climate change-preparedness strategies. 

Philadelphia was approved as one of just 16 communities across the U.S. and abroad to lead an Urban Heat Island Mapping Campaign, a joint initiative of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Integrated Heat Health Information System and CAPA Strategies, LLC. The other communities are Boulder, Colo.; Clark County, Nev., which includes Las Vegas; Columbia, S.C.; Columbus, Ohio; Jacksonville, Fla.; Knoxville and Nashville, Tenn.; Milwaukee, Wis.; Montgomery County, Md.; Omaha, Neb.; Spokane, Wash.; Brooklyn, N.Y., and San Francisco, as well as Freetown, Sierra Leone and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  

Extreme heat is a known threat that is experienced disproportionately and exacerbated by climate change. In an average year, heat kills more people in the U.S. than any other type of extreme weather. In Philadelphia, the Department of Public Health found that hotter temperatures due to climate change will cause more heat-related illness and death as the years go on. A study by the Office of Sustainability showed that temperatures in some neighborhoods can be as much as 22 degrees higher than in others, and that low-income residents and residents of color are more likely to live in these hotter neighborhoods. 

“This is a community-driven campaign, literally!” said Richard Johnson, the Academy’s director of Community Science. “Be a scientist with us, map your community and use that information to bring about change. Doing it with dozens of residents on the same day; it’s an event. It raises awareness about the challenges of climate change, urban heat and air pollution and gives communities information they can use to explore and advocate for different solutions.” 

The Philadelphia mapping will take place on one of the city’s hottest days of the year, most likely in July. Community scientists will be recruited in May or June and will be advertised by the Academy and its partners. 

Using heat and air quality sensors mounted on their cars, community scientists will traverse the city in the morning, afternoon and evening on the designated day. The sensors will record temperature, humidity, air pollution, time and location every second. City leaders then will receive datasets and maps showing sensor readings taken along the driving paths, citywide temperature predictions, and a report from CAPA Strategies. Data from the campaign will inform policy and catalyze resilience efforts with communities. 

Philadelphia’s existing Heat Vulnerability Index shows neighborhoods that are among the hottest and where residents may be least able to manage extreme heat. The new mapping campaign will add more detailed data and will record air temperature and humidity, which is more representative of what people actually experience.  

The Academy of Natural Sciences is partnering with the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation in support of the Philly Tree Plan, “a 10-year strategic plan for the planting and care of the urban forest, guided by values of environmental justice, community engagement and sustainability.” 

Volunteers Octavia Jones and her two children, Taegan and Tristen Harris, used the sensor attached to the car to collect heat data in the Bronx as part of the NOAA and partner Heat Island Mapping Campaign, July 2021. Photo courtesy of Octavia Jones.

“PHS is thrilled to be working with PPR and the Academy on this important campaign to better understand the heat and air quality in Philadelphia,” said Tim Ifill, director of PHS’ tree programs. “At PHS, we know that trees offer many health benefits such as improving air quality, lowering rates of respiratory illness, and providing vital shade to mitigate urban heat islands. By participating in this project, we will be able to further serve the region with our future tree plantings by focusing them in neighborhoods that need trees the most.”  

Trees have a direct correlation with urban heat islands because areas with more parks, trees and green spaces tend to stay cooler during the day than areas with many buildings and paved surfaces. In Philadelphia, some neighborhoods are hotter than others due to discriminatory disinvestment (e.g. redlining) and land use policies that have left some neighborhoods with lower tree canopy and fewer green spaces

To engage residents around these issues, PHS and PPR will activate their network of community partners, including PHS’ over 6,000 PHS Tree Tenders, to recruit community scientists for the campaign, especially in the neighborhoods that the Philly Tree Plan has identified as the highest priority for investments. The Academy will help organize community meetings, route planning, recruit participants and act as meeting points on the day of the campaign.  

Philadelphia and Columbus are the only two communities funded to receive mobile air quality monitors as part of their campaigns. For the air quality portion of the campaign, the Academy is working with Temple University Professor Christina Rosan and Russ Zerbo from the Clean Air Council who are leading efforts to raise awareness about local air quality and empower residents to advocate for systemic policy change. 

Philly kids beating the heat under the sprinkler. Photo by Richard Johnson

The campaign comes at a time when Philadelphia has many equity-focused efforts to address extreme heat, including the city’s first-ever Community Heat Relief Plan, the Philly Tree Plan, and Drexel researchers’ heat-preparedness efforts in Hunting Park. The Academy is working with stakeholders leading these efforts to ensure the campaign compliments their work and drives equitable solutions to extreme heat and poor air quality with the most affected communities. 

Over the last five years, the NIHHIS-CAPA Urban Heat Island Mapping Campaigns have occurred in 35 communities across the U.S. Last year, 799 community scientists took 1.2 million measurements in 24 communities. Cities from past campaigns have used the data collected to develop heat action plans, add city cooling stations, educate residents and policymakers, and inform new research. 

3 comments

  1. What are they using for mobile air quality test equipment? How much do they cost? Maybe we can donate and get some more of them for this project.

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