Miami is the first city in the world with a chief heat officer
June 19, 2021 2:49 PM   Subscribe

Jane Gilbert, who worked for many years on the city’s climate resilience initiatives, is the first person to hold a position of this kind in the world. Cities are known as “urban heat islands,” meaning they’re significantly warmer than other settlements because of the way they’re constructed, with buildings and roads absorbing heat and then reemitting it. “We’re just roasting people in cities,” Baughman McLeod says. Many of Gilbert’s prospective initiatives are based around design. She mentions installing cool pavements and roofs by using materials that reflect sunlight to drive down temperatures, and enhancing shade along pavements with tree canopies so people can walk, bike, and wait at bus stops that will feel 20 to 45 degrees cooler (which will also help encourage the use of public transportation instead of individually air-conditioned cars).
posted by folklore724 (49 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
 
enhancing shade along pavements with tree canopies

I am not sure I have ever seen an “artist’s rendition” of a new urban building that did not have a line of handsome medium-sized trees along the frontage. Inevitably, though, when the thing is built, the six or eight saplings are placed in gaps in the sidewalk each about the size of a dinner plate. Within two or three years, they are all dead from lack of water and are torn out, with the gaps where the saplings once grew filled in.

I am not an architect or contractor. I do not know why the most basic thing about how plants grow remains a mystery to them. “Sunlight” and “water” does not seem an unwieldy list of requirements to keep track of or even commit to memory.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 3:21 PM on June 19 [40 favorites]


Street trees are hugely important for overall heat management-- and since they're in the sidewalk, nobody feels responsible for them. The building owner sees them as a liability (leaf litter, roots pushing up the sidewalk, just a trip hazard in general) and they have to pay someone to water them sometimes, keep an eye on them for vandalism, etc.

If they get big enough, they block a business' sign or view from the windows, so most building owners, in my experience, do all they can to get the trees removed and drag their feet on replacing them. Meanwhile, your average city has better things to do than check up on the street trees. So this great thing that benefits everyone is basically dead on arrival. NYC actually has a better than average program that gets local residents involved in managing the street trees and street tree care enforcement, but that's unusual. OK, back to the article.
posted by blnkfrnk at 3:31 PM on June 19 [8 favorites]


Along these lines, does anyone have advice for how you'd manage making a backyard relatively cool via planting and construction in an arid climate? Or pointers to things to read that might be illuminating?
posted by weston at 3:35 PM on June 19 [2 favorites]


weston, the way I think of it is keeping the sun away from where you want to be. So, building shade with a pergola, or planting shade with local trees or vines. Also consider where the majority of your sun is coming from - you have to work harder if you have a yard that's getting all its light from the south vs. a north-facing yard.

Using a ground cover that isn't concrete helps a lot. Water features are expensive but make a microclimate-- it's worth looking into. If I were a millionaire in the high desert, I would personally excavate a cave and use that as my deck, as if I were a burrowing owl. But being underground is often really hard to pull off as a human.
posted by blnkfrnk at 3:55 PM on June 19 [7 favorites]


Chennai in India is more comfortable for walking than Miami. There is plenty Miami can do about it.
posted by ocschwar at 4:04 PM on June 19 [1 favorite]


weston - For construction, build a straw-bale structure or something out of earthen materials. For plants, local plants in varying heights (ground cover, shrubs, trees). In California, my favorite arid climate plant is manzanitas. I think the main difference between an arid climate and, say, Portland, might be the spacing of the plants.
posted by aniola at 4:10 PM on June 19 [2 favorites]


Erm, sea level rise will solve their hot pavement issue reasonably soon.
posted by aramaic at 4:28 PM on June 19 [14 favorites]


From my last visit to Miami Beach a few years ago...

Already a thing (lots of flooding)
posted by Windopaene at 5:36 PM on June 19 [1 favorite]


Erm, sea level rise will solve their hot pavement issue reasonably soon.

Yeah, this is the thing: Miami (along with a lot of lower Florida) is doomed. The sea level rise that will make it unlivable is baked-in at this point and we're probably twenty years away from the flooding severely affecting property values, at which point the real estate tsunami will hard turn course in the opposite direction.
posted by mightygodking at 5:42 PM on June 19 [5 favorites]


real estate tsunami will hard turn

Florida is a recourse state; if anyone here owns real estate in FL you should think long and hard about selling (or doing some financial wizardry with holding companies etc.) while you still can.

...I'm not joking. I only bought in a non-recourse state for this exact (climate change) reason.
posted by aramaic at 5:50 PM on June 19 [7 favorites]


Sea level rise will solve most all urban pavement issues, soon enough, hot and cold.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 5:56 PM on June 19 [2 favorites]


I remember this from Hong Kong, especially will all the businesses venting their AC out into the streets to lure you in, and the waste heat from all the AC raising the temperature... It felt like 10 degrees hotter downtown compared to Lantau Island.
posted by subdee at 6:43 PM on June 19 [2 favorites]


There's also the whole "it's really difficult to find a tree that stays the same size" as most of them have to be constantly pruned down. There is no such thing as a "good street tree" as being a street tree involves being constrained by the nature of the city.

Trees are living things and this is a process of trying to force a living thing to function as a piece of city hardware.
posted by deadaluspark at 7:17 PM on June 19 [6 favorites]


A city is, effectively, a process of trying to force a living thing to function as a piece of city hardware
posted by Merus at 7:37 PM on June 19 [13 favorites]


Erm, sea level rise will solve their hot pavement issue reasonably soon.

They can just sell all their houses to Aquaman and move. Problem solved!
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 7:42 PM on June 19 [12 favorites]


I think there's good evidence that city policy and citizen activism can dramatically change the number of trees in a city.

I've done a lot of walking around San Francisco, photographing buildings for my hobby website. I've also done a lot of online research. In 1976, the city did a survey of buildings, photographing thousands of buildings for their survey. (They're available online, but I'm not sure there's an easy way to link to them, but if you click the Historic Preservation tab on one of the properties in the city map, there's often a link to the DCP 1976 Survey Form, which has the 1976 photo.)

The difference in the amount of tree cover in the city between then and now is ASTOUNDING. In 1976, there were whole blocks with barely any trees; that's not true today.

As a fan of architecture, I've often found it faintly annoying, because it makes it MUCH harder to get a good picture of the building behind all the darn trees.

Of course there are problems with promoting more trees in a city (problems with keeping them healthy, with landowners, with power lines), but most things have problems. They're not insurmountable. And the trend has definitely had a noticeable effect - noticeable to at least one resident of the city.

It is definitely possible to dramatically increase the number of healthy, shade-giving trees in a city.
posted by kristi at 8:06 PM on June 19 [19 favorites]


MetaFilter: I would personally excavate a cave and use that as my deck, as if I were a burrowing owl.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:24 PM on June 19 [11 favorites]


It is good on them for putting forth the effort. A couple people in here dunking on Florida real estate, but by the time the sea comes, will we even have real estate? Blaming climate victims is a bit gauche. It s not Miami's fault Exxon has done this, and it s not like new jersey or California aren't In the same situation as Miami.

In the meantime people have got to do what they can. The faster it happens, the better for all. Culture is what we have that can change faster than climate.
posted by eustatic at 9:18 PM on June 19 [7 favorites]


My section of Montreal is great for being nicely covered in trees. Walking down my street in summer, if it wasn't for the cars and the pavement, I could sometimes think i was in a forest. I don't drive and I walk a lot, trees are great - such lovely shade and when it's raining sometimes you barely get wet.

It's not everywhere of course. I've been considering moving to a new place. I check out different neighbourhoods and sometimes they tempt me. But I have decided to always try visiting in summer or fall (before the leaves fall) so I can get a sense of the shade quotient.
posted by mephisjo at 9:43 PM on June 19 [2 favorites]


Oh and when the trees all get covered in snow in winter? So pretty. Well, until the ice storm at least...
posted by mephisjo at 9:48 PM on June 19


Blaming climate victims is a bit gauche

Your neighbor's house is about to be on fire.

Do you warn them? Or do you worry about whether that's a tad rude and may perhaps be intruding on their evening? After all, it's probable that they didn't set the fire, so perhaps they shouldn't be disturbed as a consequence of what some arsonist has done and, really, everything looks better in the morning now doesn't it? Best to just let it lie, things will sort themselves out.

...now, which would you prefer if it was your house?
posted by aramaic at 11:39 PM on June 19 [1 favorite]


"The difference in the amount of tree cover in [San Francisco] between then and now is ASTOUNDING."

And this is largely through the efforts of the wonderful, nonprofit, citizen-led Friends of the Urban Forest rather than the city itself. I don't live in the city any longer, but the street trees I planted with FUF's help make me feel like I left a part of me behind for good.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 12:23 AM on June 20 [13 favorites]


Miami was an apt place to start: Known for its vulnerability to sea-level rise

Curious choice of words and indicative of the gas-lighting that got us into this fucking mess: I think it’s settled that Miami doesn’t have a vulnerability to sea-level rise, Miami is going to be inundated by the ocean in the next fifty years.

The sentence should read: „Miami, which is frantically trying to manage its inexorable inundation and subsumption into the ocean…“ maybe a touch heavy, maybe
posted by From Bklyn at 1:12 AM on June 20 [8 favorites]


I realize Florida gets a lot of shit for being fleet m flat, but it's not that flat. Sea level rise is going to fuck the water supply in Miami long before most buildings have waves lapping at the door.

One probably shouldn't feel bad for blaming most of the people who live here for participating in causing the problem, though. We seem to be doing everything in our power to avoid doing anything about car dependency and it's kinda a thing to see people just idling their car running the AC for no particularly good reason.
posted by wierdo at 5:45 AM on June 20 [5 favorites]


The city where I live now has a wild temperature variance; in the winter it’s as cold as -15 Celsius, and in the summer it’s been as hot as 40 degrees Celsius. They have a large farm on the outskirts where they grow plants, and every spring they put fresh planters with all sizes of vegetation right across the city. Of course, this is Europe, not America - but there’s no reason this couldn’t be done by a series of private companies.
posted by The River Ivel at 5:49 AM on June 20 [2 favorites]


I'm expecting some colleges and universities to hire CHOs.
posted by doctornemo at 7:56 AM on June 20 [1 favorite]


wierdo... Florida's max height is 345ft and it's average elevation is 6ft... it is that flat
posted by kokaku at 8:03 AM on June 20 [1 favorite]


As someone mentioned above, NYC is unusually good about street trees. I live on a block that is completely new build, and pretty much everyone who lives here was hell-bent on getting trees put in. Two trees outside my building died in their first year, and we were able to get new trees that are doing really well now. Trees and treepits are officially the responsibility of the building they are in front of, like the sidewalk. Brooklyn Botanical Garden has a tree pruning class and there is a band of roving volunteer street tree pruners - and there is a bit of a drama about who gets to share in that, based on two blocks I've lived in here. I don't know about other cities, but for a while now in Brooklyn at least, people really want their trees.
posted by maggiemaggie at 8:19 AM on June 20 [5 favorites]


I'm expecting some colleges and universities to hire CHOs.

I think you mean they'll volunteer faculty to serve on a Heat Committee which takes a lot of time, generates only recommendations to an existing VP who ignores the shit out of them until they pass the same goddam thing five years in a row, and doesn't count for anything towards tenure or merit raises. They'd only hire a CHO after the committee had done all the heavy lifting and they needed the provost's cousin's son in law to get paid a lot to claim credit for the work the faculty had done for free at actual cost to their careers.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 8:20 AM on June 20 [10 favorites]


My first reaction was that it seemed unlikely that this would be the first city heat officer in the world. I am working on an EU project that involves devising heat strategies for cities, including a document to guide cities to create their own heat strategies. However, there is a clear difference. My work is talking about taking a lead on devising a low carbon heat strategy, basically, how can we keep homes and commercial buildings warm without huge amounts of fossil fuel. This is just dealing with the fallout of not decarbonising. Not saying it isn't necessary to do the latter - it sounds like is is. But will they be cutting carbon from heat as a key strategy? Will Miami have a strategy for moving to low carbon heating and cooling?
posted by biffa at 8:39 AM on June 20 [1 favorite]


There is no such thing as a "good street tree"

Yes there is.
posted by bashing rocks together at 10:36 AM on June 20 [3 favorites]


Street trees are hugely important for overall heat management-- and since they're in the sidewalk, nobody feels responsible for them. The building owner sees them as a liability (leaf litter, roots pushing up the sidewalk, just a trip hazard in general) and they have to pay someone to water them sometimes, keep an eye on them for vandalism, etc.

In cities, too, an obvious difficulty is limited space on the sidewalk. Fortunately just next to the sidewalk, there's a ton of space currently covered in impervious surfaces (which store, reflect, and thus increase heat) and generally reserved for the most inefficient means of transportation that we've got (which also just happen to contribute greatly to climate change).

I spend a lot of time talking with heat researches (both climate, and in terms of heat-related health effects - since extreme heat in the USA kills more people each year than all other natural disasters combined) and air quality researchers and they all shake their heads sadly and say "We're can't make real progress until we start cutting back on cars."
posted by entropone at 10:37 AM on June 20 [5 favorites]


This seems good. What the advice will be, aside from, "Don't plant palm trees. Approve fewer vehicle roads. Get rid of parking lots. Fuck lawns," is less clear. We've known how to solve this problem for decades. Nobody in power has any incentive to act. I want to believe. I also want to see a budget comenserate with this challenge.
posted by eotvos at 11:05 AM on June 20 [2 favorites]


Yeah, this is the thing: Miami (along with a lot of lower Florida) is doomed.

You can be sure that the last thing to vanish below the surface will be an unbelievably good-looking real estate agent still trying to sell a luxury condo that was just swallowed up by the waves, however.
posted by ryanshepard at 11:57 AM on June 20


wierdo... Florida's max height is 345ft and it's average elevation is 6ft... it is that flat

One should be cautious in using such statistics when attempting to understand reality on the ground. Especially when there are excellent resources in the form of online maps that communicate lived reality in a much better way.

Most, but by no means all, of Florida's built up areas are substantially higher than three feet above sea level. Even in a worst case scenario, the house I'm living in at the moment will still be well above sea level come 2100, and I'm in one of the lower parts of the coastal ridge in the immediate area. Florida's average elevation is dragged way down by all the swamps in the Everglades and the Big Bend. The places people live that aren't literally adjacent to the coast or a tidal waterway are generally 10+ feet above the current mean sea level.

That said, there are relatively small areas in the City of Miami and in Miami Beach that are low enough to serve as excellent examples of the problems we will be facing in the coming decades. Mainly fresh water flooding due to increasingly ineffective drainage and street flooding when we happen to have onshore flow adding to king tides, along with decreased resilience to tropical systems because of the increase in sea level. As time goes on, more and more structures will be susceptible to storm surges during tropical weather, but we aren't going to wake up one day and find ourselves wishing we had canoes with no warning.

Sadly for Miami, Brickell is going to get fucked long before most of the rest of the city because it is particularly low and isn't sheltered by Miami Beach or the coastal ridge and it has seen a lot of expensive development recently and has some of the most expensive real estate in town. Downtown Miami will fare much better for much longer because it's mostly another 15 feet up from the waterfront, which is itself 3-6 feet above sea level.

In the longer term the coastal ridge is going to form a new chain of islands much like the keys of today and a bunch more islands working their way up to central Florida, which will remain decidedly above water for the foreseeable future, but we're all going to be dead by then, so worrying about the exact nature of the drowning land isn't particularly helpful.

Long before that, we're going to be getting pretty thirsty due to salt water intrusion into the aquifers from which we source our drinking water. Thankfully, the first couple of rounds of that problem we dealt with in the 20th century saw the movement of wells farther inland and better management practices to avoid exacerbating the problem as we once were, so the rate of intrusion is presently pretty close to zero where it matters. (Until recently, the freshwater lens was still pushing closer to the coast as a result of the changes!) It's going to start up again as the equilibrium is disrupted by rising sea level, but that's still a pretty long term problem.

To be sure, there are some neighborhoods that are dry today that are going to have unmanageable flooding problems by the time a 30 year mortgage is up, but they are the exception, not the rule. We should take them as the strong warning they are, however, not as a sign that all of South Florida is imminently doomed. We are going to have to make some hard choices about which ones can be saved with drainage improvements and which ones can't. Luckily, there are people in local government thinking about this problem, even as the state government continues to insist everything is fine despite the mountain of evidence to the contrary.

One of the hardest decisions Miami has to face in the very near future is whether it's worth pursuing flood barriers for Brickell and a few other particularly low lying areas or not. We aren't particularly prone to storm surge, but there has already been enough sea level rise to make it an issue and there are billions of dollars worth of real estate including some brand new high rises sited on that land. The problem is that a barrier is only useful against storm surges, not sea level rise itself since the water will just bubble up through the limestone anyway. As much as we might prefer it, we can't save the low lying areas in the long term. The question is how many decades can we get from stopping storm surges and whether that's worth the cost. Most of town can still be saved with a sufficiently aggressive carbon reduction plan, but even that possibility has an uncomfortably small window remaining.

It makes me sad, because I really like it down here, aside from the dipshits who continue to ignore the evidence right in front of their eyes and won't get out of their goddamned cars until I-95 ends in a boat ramp and probably not even then. You'd think that the people who stand to lose the most of anyone in the US would be able to give enough of a shit to at least try to chart a more sustainable future that involves less carbon intensive transportation options, but no.

On the one hand, they're right that it's just pissing in the wind if China and the rest of the US don't join us, but on the other hand if even we aren't willing to put our money where our mouth is and do what we can to decrease our carbon output, how can we expect anyone else to make that choice?
posted by wierdo at 12:38 PM on June 20 [18 favorites]


Metafilter: We’re just roasting people in cities.

We have west facing bedrooms at our house, and realized the first year we moved in that they just BAKE in the summer. We've been doing everything we can to avoid getting AC installed, so we set up anything we could to try and dent the heat gain on the house. We have pretty good insulation and the inside wall temperature would be almost 15F higher than the rest of the house.

There's no room to plant any trees or dense shrubs there, but we realized that we didn't need anything 'permanent' full time year round. We were already growing hops on the front of the house; they were pretty well established by the prior owner. I hung wire trellises along that wall to help them canopy.

We purchased a few more rhizomes, and planted them up; the first year they didn't do too great, but after amending the soil a little bit, they grew like gangbusters along that wall. I'm working on a bamboo trellis that's inspired kind of by the sails of a junk to sit along the actual fence line and go up a good 10ft higher than that, to provide another layer of shade. Granted they're a little on the thirsty side (especially when they're younger), but they grow FAST in terms of vining plants, and if you're not looking to produce actual hops on them, they can grow into a really thick canopy. They're a really great way to quickly (in botanic timelines) shade an area while you establish more permanent shade. If you like them, and ignore home-brewer forums for taking care of your hops, the rhizome cluster will continue to expand and send off shoots. This is good for shade, but bad for hops production, which is why folks don't talk about it. The hardest part is figuring out what kind of trellis you want to build.

I've been talking to our across-the-street neighbors a bunch to let me take huge lengths of PVC pipe and build a dome over the street like a hoop-greenhouse and turn out block into a local landmark. The spousal approval committees are not on board.

Lets turn these cities into forests babee!
posted by furnace.heart at 2:22 PM on June 20 [11 favorites]


I only bought in a non-recourse state for this exact (climate change) reason.

Oh I had never heard of this concept, but by luck bought in one of the 12 states that are non-recourse (Utah). Which is good because I’m sure the whole state will be torched soon enough under the heat dome. All the homes around me (and ours) were built for very cold winters and moderate summers mostly in the mid 70’s. June is supposed to be an average high of 75 but it’s been highs of 80’s and 90’s all month. The only silver lining is that the air is so dry our portable swamp cooler is highly efficient.
posted by inflatablekiwi at 7:59 PM on June 20


Along these lines, does anyone have advice for how you'd manage making a backyard relatively cool via planting and construction in an arid climate? Or pointers to things to read that might be illuminating?

Read Wrath of Gnon twitter. The short answer is build a courtyard.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:35 AM on June 21 [1 favorite]


Turn of the century shop houses in Malaysia managed heat by having open courtyards and having the second floor overhang the sidewalk to create a sheltered walkway along the town's main shopping streets.
posted by dazed_one at 8:56 AM on June 21


I vaguely recalled Barcelona making a concerted effort to plant a bunch of trees to cool down the city for the Olympics. I couldn't find any follow-up reports on those efforts, but did stumble on a highly-detailed tree strategy, but is quite interesting, but was a bit tl/dr for me:
https://ajuntament.barcelona.cat/ecologiaurbana/sites/default/files/Pla-director-arbrat-barcelona-ENG.pdf

Also, I wouldn't underestimate Miami's commitment to climate mitigation strategies like massive flood barriers and gigantic pumping stations. Billions of investment may be required, but it would protect many billions of existing infrastructure in addition to the avoided costs of human misery.
posted by Phreesh at 9:45 AM on June 21


mitigation strategies like massive flood barriers

...Miami is built on porous limestone; flood barriers are useless because the water will simply go through the rock underneath the barrier and come back up on the other side, bubbling up out of the ground itself (it already does this in places like Shorecrest). Any money spent on flood walls will just be a boondoggle for well-connected contracting firms and short-horizon politicians, not a genuinely effective long-term strategy.
posted by aramaic at 10:36 AM on June 21


...Miami is built on porous limestone; flood barriers are useless because the water will simply go through the rock underneath the barrier and come back up on the other side, bubbling up out of the ground itself (it already does this in places like Shorecrest). Any money spent on flood walls will just be a boondoggle for well-connected contracting firms and short-horizon politicians, not a genuinely effective long-term strategy.

You are obviously more informed about the true situation than myself. Let me just say 'mitigation strategies' full stop. My point is that Miami is not doomed. We have a habit of underestimating the power of human ingenuity in a crisis.
posted by Phreesh at 11:05 AM on June 21


They should float the whole joint, or turn it into the Venice of the Sub-Tropics. Cobble together some kind of... something... to keep the buildings from totally collapsing/falling into the sea, and then let the streets flood!

It's probably for the best I didn't go into urban planing
posted by From Bklyn at 11:17 AM on June 21 [1 favorite]


...Miami is built on porous limestone; flood barriers are useless because the water will simply go through the rock underneath the barrier and come back up on the other side, bubbling up out of the ground itself

Flood barriers in south Florida would be perfectly useful for mitigating the increased risk of storm surges. They would not have any degree of success at keeping the land dry once the mean sea level exceeds the height of the land, however. The question is how many hurricanes will approach from the relatively small window likely to cause serious storm surge flooding are going to happen before rising sea level makes it irrelevant.

Maybe longer than you might think if it is decided that raising the streets to lobby level in the new construction buildings is worth doing. They're mostly all well above street level, which is itself currently a few feet above MSL, unlike the older buildings.
posted by wierdo at 11:51 AM on June 21 [2 favorites]


I asked how the flooding was.

“There are pump stations everywhere, and the roads were raised,” he said. “So that’s all been fixed.”

“Fixed,” I said. “Wow. Amazing.

posted by Western Infidels at 6:55 PM on June 21


Maybe longer than you might think if it is decided that raising the streets to lobby level in the new construction buildings is worth doing

It wouldn't be the first time a major American city was raised by a story to combat flooding.
posted by Mitheral at 5:02 AM on June 22


Or the second!
posted by Huffy Puffy at 7:07 AM on June 22 [1 favorite]


Apparently (free Ars article on the topic) we can expect coastal flooding to occur quite rapidly due to larger Earth/Moon cycles. So we've got that to look forward to.

Get ready for "fun" post-2030.

(sotto voce: note, fun may not be fun. Fun is in fact guaranteed to not be fun. Your definition of fun may not be our definition of fun, but the definition of fun for the insurance industry is the definition that will prevail for all future correspondence. Your having read these terms constitutes acceptance. Fun!)
posted by aramaic at 7:59 PM on June 22


Trees are always good, there should be more trees everywhere all the time, but also remember the prevailing winds and try not to block them with stuff, including trees.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:34 PM on June 24


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