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Vancouver’s plans for intense summer heat domes address climate equality through community programs

Increasing tree coverage and more social programs are among strategies being used to reduce the impacts of climate change.

Talking about the weather is not usually the most exciting of conversation starters. But for residents of BC it seemed like an unavoidable topic last summer as temperatures soared, forest fires raged, and people struggled to find relief from the heat. Now, almost a year later, evidence is showing who was most affected by the heat, and how climate change will continue to shape Vancouver.

With Vancouver’s heatwave of 2021 still a recent memory –  and more extreme weather predicted to occur – city programs are ramping up to cool citizens down and address climate inequality in the community. 

The City of Vancouver plans to bolster response to extreme heat events, anticipating more frequent and intense ‘heat domes’.

The June heatwave of 2021 saw a high of 31°C at YVR, and even hotter temperatures in dense urban areas with less tree coverage. Temperatures are expected to continue to rise due to global warming, according to the IPCC.

The effects of the heatwave were seen most in Vancouver’s vulnerable communities, putting strain on emergency services.

Between July 25th and June 1st, 99 Vancouver residents died due to the heat, with the majority of them being over the age of 70.

Following the extreme heat, the city of Vancouver resolved to improve their response to these extreme weather events with a variety of strategies to keep residents cool, improve accessibility to cooling infrastructure, and prepare for future climate events.

Increased checks on people in non-market housing, added temporary water fountains to higher-need areas, and misters in downtown parks and streets are among the city’s short-term responses, Tamsin Mills, a Climate Change Adaptation and Sustainability Planner at the City of Vancouver,  told 8forty.

However, planning for future heat domes and improving their strategies has had some challenges. “It’s very difficult, we don’t have good data on which of our response tactics have the greatest impact, so we don’t actually have an answer.”

Who’s at Risk

People most at-risk during the heat dome were those facing social and material deprivation, as well as isolated seniors and individuals with substance abuse and mental health concerns, according to research done by the BC Center for Disease Control.

Image: COV / Urban Forest Strategy

Areas with high densities of buildings and asphalt, and less capable of reflecting heat off vegetation, were found to be the hottest, a phenomenon known as the Urban Heat Island Effect. This effect was seen most in lower-income parts of the city, especially the downtown eastside, where there was little canopy to protect its residents from the heat.

“It’s a range of factors,” said Mills. “There’s a lot of buildings that are old, probably don’t cool down very well, there’s some where there’s limitations on window opening, or the small rooms.”

Community collaboration is a key part of finding solutions, according to Mills. “There’s an effort as well to meet with different ethnocultural groups and different organizations in those challenge areas to find out more about what the needs are.”

The thing with most urban and suburban residents is that they have the luxury to afford to move away from areas with uncomfortable – and potentially deadly – weather. For residents of the downtown eastside, that is not the case. 

The Future Looks Hot

With the UN’s new IPCC report saying that the global average temperature will rise by 1.5 degrees in the next few decades, these events that were once considered to be once in a millennium will become more frequent.

The Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium conducted at the University of Victoria downscaled data from global models to apply to the lower mainland region. The report predicted there will be more than double the number of days above 25 degrees by the 2050’s, with the hottest days being 4 degrees hotter, and a 19 percent decrease in precipitation.

These increased temperatures have far-reaching effects, according to the Vancouver’s 2018 Climate Change adaptation strategy, saying that more frequent heatwaves will put more Vancouverites at risk of heat-related illness, and aging buildings with a lack of air conditioning will make living in hot areas uncomfortable.

Hotter and dryer summers don’t just affect the human population of Vancouver either. The Climate Change Adaptation Strategy also highlights how crucial trees are to keeping streets cool, and with an increase in droughts, Vancouver’s foliage could take a hit too, along with an increase of invasive species.

Image: COV/Urban Forest Strategy

What’s Being Done

Since the introduction of the Extreme Heat Response Plan in 2010, the city has taken actions to improve its response to these events that are becoming more and more common, through both short-term responses and long-term strategies.

Input from local communities and those most affected is being considered too. “We’re also trying to…find out not just what we think can be done, but what groups in the city think can be improved in specific areas,” said Mills. 

Since the 1990s, Vancouver has been developing strategies to address environmental challenges facing the city, and they now have a range of strategies to plan for a future living with more extreme weather. The problem is not limited to just heatwave response, and almost all of the City’s plans have considerations for resilience to climate change.

“Trying to get actions rolling quickly to be ready for this summer but also a recognition that we need to improve our long-term planning for heat.”

Changing building bylaws are an important part of reducing the effects of extreme heat, as well as making infrastructure more efficient, self-sufficient, and resilient to climate change, according to Mills.

More strategies for long-term responses are in place, such as the climate change adaptation strategy, and urban forest strategy. The urban forest strategy aimed to plant 150,000 trees by 2020.

“Tree planting is an effective way of improving the quality of green space in dense, urban neighbourhoods, and improving community health by lowering summer temperatures and reducing air pollution,” said the 2018 update that was put out by the city.

You Can Play a Role Too

Being an active member of your community is one of the best ways to help out when faced with extreme weather, Mills said. Clearing catch basins to allow drainage, or stewarding nearby trees if they look dry, are good places to start.

“I think being neighbourly, knowing perhaps where those more vulnerable people in your neighbourhood or in your building or on your floor are, and if there’s an event, going to check on them,” Mills continued.

“Being aware of the long-term impacts of climate change and supporting and advocating and electing those people that are going to support action on climate change and climate adaptation”

Supporting and electing people who advocate for climate adaptation is a good way to make long-term change possible, said Mills, as well as raising awareness of the effects of climate change.

“Talking about these events and how they impact our health and wellbeing could prompt greater action to mitigate climate change.”

Featured Image: Pixabay / LukeL

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