Low-income and racially diverse Spokane residents are disproportionately affected by extreme heat, according to a new report from the Gonzaga Center for Climate, Society and the Environment.
That’s likely because those residents tend to live in neighborhoods with more roads and buildings and fewer trees, meaning higher concentrations of heat, said Brian Henning, director of the Gonzaga Climate Center. They also don’t have resources, such as air conditioning, to keep cool during a heat wave.
“What we need to do is pursue community strategies that ensure as much as we can that everybody has equal opportunity to have a healthy neighborhood, where regardless of how much money you have or your heritage, you’re able to live in a neighborhood that is no warmer or cooler than any other,” Henning said. “And so this research can help us to guide resources and planning to make sure that everybody is treated fairly.”
The report stems from Henning and the Gonzaga Climate Center’s “Spokane Beat the Heat” study in which the center mapped out “urban heat islands” – areas of pavement and buildings that absorb and retain heat, and can be much hotter than other shaded parts of neighborhoods – last summer to better understand the heat disparities in Spokane neighborhoods. Beat the Heat was in response to the 19 people who died in 2021 in Spokane County because of scorching temperatures.
The mapping campaign showed neighborhoods, such as West Central, East Central and northeast Spokane, that have more pavement and buildings are hotter than neighborhoods, such as the South Hill, with more shade and green space.
Henning said the new report also dispels the misconception that extreme heat only affects homeless people, when, in fact, many community members are affected.
“Therefore, the plans that we devise to try and be ready for future heat waves need to be able to address all the communities that are affected,” he said.
Rad Cunningham, Washington State Department of Health senior epidemiologist, helped in providing the demographic data to the Gonzaga Climate Center. He said the center’s research is important because it validated the correlation between underserved communities and urban heat, which is a nationwide trend.
“I think that really adds to the conversation and is really valuable work,” Cunningham said.
Henning said the Department of Health provided age, income, race and other demographics to the urban heat island maps so the temperatures and demographics could be compared. There were no significant correlations between residents’ age and urban heat.
“The goal is just to understand the magnitude of the problem so that we can begin seeking solutions that would actually address the full scope of the problem,” Henning said.
The Gonzaga Climate Center also collected valuable data from a survey that garnered nearly 1,800 responses from community members last fall about how extreme heat affected their lives.
Henning said 88% of respondents said they did not intend to leave their home during an extreme heat event.
He said many residents open their windows at night to cool their house and close them during the day when the weather is hot. While that has worked for generations, Henning said sometimes the temperatures are so severe that the old method is no longer effective, leaving residents in harm’s way.
Henning said people should make plans, such as cooling down a room or visiting a cooling center, for themselves and family members when the weather is dangerously hot.
“Unfortunately, we’re moving into a period where we’re likely to have increasing periods of extended heat, which could be deadly,” Henning said.
According to the survey, about 25% of respondents said they don’t have access to air conditioning.
Of those with air conditioning, 1 in 5 reported significant barriers, particularly financial barriers, to using it.
“That means that there’s, again, a lot of people, especially low-income residents, who are statistically more likely to be in places with concentrations of heat and report that they’re less likely to be either having an air conditioner or being able to run one if they have it,” Henning said.
The survey indicated that many people believe extreme heat is a threat to the health and well-being of the community. Of the 1,177 people who responded to that question, 43% said it’s a “severe threat” and 41% said it’s a “moderate threat.”
“These things taken together start to present a pretty clear picture of just how widespread this problem is,” Henning said. “It goes far beyond just unhoused people. It’s actually a very large segment of our community.”
The Gonzaga Climate Center presented its work to Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward and city officials last week and this week. While the talks are in the early stages, Henning said the two entities will continue to look for ways to work together to develop an extreme heat readiness plan.
Henning said the center and the Spokane Regional Health District are collaborating on a heat health awareness campaign this summer.
Deanna Stark, health program specialist at the health district, said the district is putting together flyers and handouts on how to recognize heat stroke and heat exhaustion, ways to stay safe in the heat, and other vital information about the heat and its effects. Information will also be posted on the district’s social media sites and is on its website.
Stark said the district placed a larger emphasis on spreading the word about heat because of increased heat-related deaths and hotter summers.
“Last year, we really made an effort to be more prepared and ready with the messaging, and so when GU approached us, we were very much on board,” she said.
Henning said he hopes to pursue grants to address extreme heat.
He said he would love to create an air conditioning voucher program for low-income residents.
He said the Gonzaga Climate Center is hosting a symposium June 6 at the university that will bring together 50 or more medical practitioners, emergency managers, hospital leaders, and city and county officials to brainstorm ideas for an extreme heat action plan.
Interactive maps showing urban heat islands and demographics, as well as other Beat the Heat information can be viewed by visiting gonzaga.edu/BeatTheHeat.