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Designing Hyperlocal Strategies to Fight Urban Heat Islands

This post is part of a series from students in the Master of Arts in Social Design program at Maryland Institute College of Art, which focuses on how design can reimagine solutions to world challenges. For the next eight weeks, MASD students will each share their personal thesis journey. Follow the series at

Baltimore was built without air conditioning. The row home offered a quick, copied, execution that boomed at the beginning of the last century. During the industrial age of the United States, Baltimore, like all cities, was far from thinking about climate change and the impending effects that would cause turmoil in the day-to-day lives of its citizens.

Fast forward to today; temperatures are hotter. The heat from the sun soaks houses, streets, yards and our bodies. In many cases, the only relief is cool shade or escape to an air-conditioned interior. But for a large population in Baltimore, and across the world, air conditioning is a luxury that many can’t afford.
My work focuses on alternatives to cooling the built environment and measuring the effects of heat to a city. Previous articles on GOOD demonstrate innovative solutions to the urban heat island effect. But beyond the immediate surface response of cool roofs, reflective pavements, and an increased tree canopy, can solutions be integrated to improve additional issues afflicting a community? What if adaptation to heat could display a variety of benefits, particularly in communities that otherwise can’t afford or warrant modifications to their homes?
The first step is reinterpreting what success could mean. Energy use is the standard metric for evaluating the impact of dealing with heat in cities; lower energy use equals success. Less cooling via AC does mean lower energy bills. But for people who can’t afford that energy use to begin with, this doesn’t demonstrate the true impact these strategies could have. Heat in cities is linked to health problems, infrastructure degradation, higher energy use and impact to air and water quality. Working with industry professionals, I’m trying to create a series of metrics for success looking at a range of impact from public health, local economy, material use and cultural influence in addition to energy to understand heat influence from a more comprehensive view. By understanding and documenting a broader impact we can design evaluate better-suited system for mitigating heat.
As I work with these communities, I’m beginning to better understand other social issues that are being dealt with in these neighborhoods, like vacancy issues, joblessness, and obesity. When juxtaposed with heat these can inform new solutions that offer a local site-specific approach that tackle multiple problems. For example, the products typically used in strategies dealing with heat are sourced from afar and manufactured in unsustainable ways. If heat mitigation solutions addressed joblessness and vacancy, we could look at harvesting local materials and a manufacturing base; offering much needed jobs, and removing urban decay. Developing these pairing of community specific issues with heat builds a stronger case for change and the chances of it actually happening.
Approaching the problem of heat from both ends of the system in evaluation and implementation, I am working to develop holistic solutions to a variety of communities in east Baltimore. Working at a local scale my work has allowed me to foster connections to residents and partners that open potential for the city to thrive and evolve for the future.
Photo via (cc) Flickr user Bob Jagendorf\n

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