Applying cool pavement on neighborhood streets is one of the strategies Phoenix is using to mitigate the heat island effect. This water-based asphalt treatment is applied on top of existing pavement and allows the material to reflect heat unlike traditional dark asphalt which absorbs heat.
City of Phoenix Street Transportation Department
- Phoenix’s chief heat officer says more affordable housing will prevent heat-associated deaths.
- The city since 2021 has planted trees and set up cooling centers, but deaths still rose last year.
- A rising number of people are experiencing homelessness, making them vulnerable to extreme heat.
- This story is part of “Advancing Cities,” a series highlighting urban centers across the US that are committed to improving life for their residents.
David Hondula describes summertime in Phoenix like this: opening an oven and having a wall of hot, dry air hit you. Other times, it’s seeing people wear gloves while driving because their steering wheel is too hot.
“It can be a little shocking,” Hondula, director of the city’s office of heat response and mitigation, told Insider.
It’s also deadly. Last year there were at least 378 confirmed heat-associated deaths in Maricopa County, where Phoenix is located. That figure has steadily increased every year since 2014, when 61 people died.
Temperatures in Arizona have followed a similar trend, driven by the man-made climate crisis. The last two decades were the warmest on record and there are more days with triple-digit heat, particularly since 2015, according to state and federal climate scientists.
In Phoenix — the hottest city in America — the effects are intensified by urban sprawl with all its cars and concrete streets and buildings, Hondula told Insider.
“I think it’s actually good news that urbanization is so consequential in determining what the climate of a city is, because we have our hands on those levers,” Hondula, a longtime environmental scientist and heat researcher, said. “How many people are moving here, what the building requirements are, what we’re doing on streets and roofs — those are all local-government decisions.”
All these factors led Phoenix in 2021 to establish the country’s first publicly funded heat office, with Hondula at the helm. Since then, the office has grown to seven employees who are coordinating efforts across city government on programs designed to prevent heat-associated deaths. The work involves planting trees, using materials that make roofs and pavement cooler, and setting up 60 public cooling and hydration centers where residents can seek relief from the heat.
Mayor Kate Gallego told Insider that the city put a special sealant on pavement that can lower the surface temperature of sidewalks between 10 and 12 degrees Fahrenheit. Some 100 miles of pavement has been treated so far.
“We’re also trying to create a city-wide network of pathways that keep pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users safe from the temperatures of our urban landscape,” Gallego said.
The city worked with the nonprofit American Forests, which developed an equity tool to identify neighborhoods that don’t have enough trees and therefore are at higher risk from heat. These tend to be in low-income areas and communities of color.
Gallego said that like most cities in America, wealthier areas in Phoenix have more tree cover and are cooler. She said addressing the disparity is a top priority.
The city received nearly $400 million from the Biden administration’s COVID-19 rescue package, a portion of which helps fund the city’s work on heat.
Despite these efforts, the number of heat-associated deaths still rose in 2022.
When asked about this, Hondula told Insider what he realized during his last two years on the job: Affordable housing is the most important investment Phoenix can make to bring down heat-associated deaths because they are so closely intertwined with the homelessness crisis.
Arizona has the fifth-highest rate of people experiencing homelessness, according to federal data. There were more than 9,000 unhoused people across Maricopa County as of January 2022, the latest estimate available. More than half were unsheltered. And last week, a judge ordered Phoenix to clear out an encampment of some 850 people downtown, siding with businesses who sued.
“The rate of heat-associated death is 300% to 400% higher among people experiencing homelessness than the rest of the population,” Hondula said. “So any minor success we can achieve for our unsheltered neighbors will have a significantly disproportionate benefit.”
Hondula’s office last year teamed up with Phoenix’s homeless-solutions team to hand out water bottles and give people information about cooling centers and social services, leading to thousands of different engagements.
“Handing out water bottles is good, but getting a house is great,” Hondula said.
Gallego told Insider in a statement that she and other city staff are working daily to address this issue. She supports a government-wide approach — with help from federal, state, regional, and local partners — to address the housing crisis, including temporary shelters, mental-health services, and affordable housing.
Phoenix over the last two fiscal years approved $120 million to implement its own strategy, a city spokesperson told Insider in an email. This includes providing financial incentives to landlords who rent to residents with public-housing vouchers and investing millions to create and preserve affordable homes.
Last year, nearly 600 new beds were added at existing shelters with another 800 set to be available by 2024, the spokesperson said. In November, 117 rooms at a leased hotel became available through the city’s partnership with an addiction-treatment center.
Gallego highlighted a project in Edison-Eastlake, where a public housing project is being redesigned based on feedback from residents.
“They told us it was incredibly important to have cooler and more comfortable communities with shaded spaces so they could watch kids play outdoors,” she said.
Amy Schwabenlender is executive director of Human Services Campus, which operates Phoenix’s largest shelter and works with 16 organizations to provide services around health, food, jobs, and housing.
She told Insider that increasing rents, stagnant incomes, high eviction rates, and a booming population in Phoenix are all factors in the rising number of people experiencing homelessness.
The city’s efforts are important, but Schwabenlender worries they won’t be enough to meet the demand.
Hondula, for his part, said the heat office needs to be the biggest advocate for investments in affordable housing and homelessness services inside City Hall. As budget season approaches, he is considering arguing against more money for his office to help free up funds.
“If we really want to prevent heat-associated deaths among people experiencing homelessness,” he said, “we’re not going to invest in trees and cold pavement, we should invest in housing.”