Backyard Talk Homepage

The Urban Heat Island Effect

Photo credit: Washington City Paper.

By Leanna Theam.

I grew up in the suburbs of sunny Southern California then moved to the opposite end of California to a small college town to study Environmental Policy Analysis and Planning at the University of California, Davis. Regardless, living my entire life in California meant that have I never understood or experienced the severity of climate change. This summer, I moved to Washington, D.C. for a 10-week program to be an intern for the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice. To put it simply, I was not ready to experience summers in the city.

I never expected the heat to rise to such high temperatures on the East Coast of all places and it didn’t take me long to realize that I moved into an “urban heat island.” The Urban Heat Island Effect, as explained by the Environmental Protection Agency, “occur[s] when cities replace natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat.” Washington, D.C. is a good example of this effect as temperatures in the city can rise to 10 or 20 degrees hotter than surrounding cities that may have more greenery.

This not only poses a threat to our environment but a threat to the communities living in these heat islands, specifically those in a lower socioeconomic class. I am fortunate enough to be temporarily housed in an apartment building with AC, and I do not have to worry as much about an energy bill for these summer months. However, long-term residents in the city do not have the same luxury. The Washington Paper explains that “wealthier D.C. residents can leave town for the beach or the mountains this time of year” compared to other lower-wealth individuals who do not have similar means to escape the heat. Federal government’s history of discriminatory actions and urban planning segregation only exacerbate this problem amongst communities of color. Historically redlined neighborhoods must put up with dangerously high levels of heat in the summer months.

Environmental justice is social justice, and we must call for our local, state, and federal governments to focus on these environmental issues. Government officials should pass policies that can help us move towards a healthier living environment to continue mitigating climate change to the best of our ability.

Check out this article to learn more: Exploring the Heat Island Effect in Washington, D.C.