A Plan to Cool Off the Hottest Neighborhoods

As the climate changes, hyperlocal projects are helping keep disadvantaged areas livable.

People plant small trees along a river next to a busy road
Courtesy of Groundwork Hudson Valley

“Grandma, is the air on?” Kisha Skipper was worried. She’s the vice president of the Yonkers NAACP and a member of the Climate Safe Yonkers Task Force, a group that’s planning projects to make the city safer in a hotter world. And she could see her 95-year-old grandmother sweating on the video call.

Skipper’s grandmother is reluctant to turn on her air-conditioning even on the hottest days, because running the unit costs money and she’s on a fixed income. Every dollar is already spoken for. “I am going to turn it on right now,” she tells Skipper whenever she asks. But Skipper fears that her grandma’s frugality will kill her. “The same way they say ‘all politics is local,’ all climate issues are local,” Skipper says. “Of course, we should be focusing on the global scale. But why does it have to be one or the other?”

The United States has recently taken noteworthy steps to address climate change at the global level. A new law dedicating roughly $374 billion to climate action and the quiet ratification of a treaty to reduce the consumption and production of climate-toasting hydrofluorocarbons suggest, to optimistic climate wonks, glimmerings of progress. But dangerous levels of warming are already here. One study estimates that more than a third of heat-related deaths over the past few decades might not have occurred without climate change. Sublethal suffering matters too: heat-related illness, flooded homes, children stuck inside on the hottest days.

Forty-six percent of Americans say they have personally felt the impacts of climate change. And a growing body of research shows that poor neighborhoods—especially Black and brown neighborhoods—are hit the worst. To address these unequally distributed harms, a number of grassroots environmental organizations have begun working at the hyperlocal level, raising money and mobilizing volunteers in neighborhoods that are already inside the climate crisis.

In Yonkers, maps showing which neighborhoods were once formally designated for Black families can be almost overlapped with maps of where the city is hottest. These are neighborhoods with few trees, block after block of concrete parking lots and shadeless streets soaking up the sun all day and radiating heat all night. The work of planting trees in neighborhoods like these, as well as installing rain gardens, removing pavement, and making sure that the elderly can afford air-conditioning, might seem like small potatoes compared with the high-powered policy making necessary to stop climate change on the global or national level. But unlike those top-down approaches, hyperlocal adaptation can proceed even if climate-change deniers are elected to national office or international negotiation grinds to a halt.

Cate Mingoya-LaFortune, the national director of climate resilience and land use at Groundwork USA, says that top-down mitigation and local adaptation go hand in hand. Groundwork helps coordinate a network of local efforts, including Groundwork Hudson Valley, which runs the Yonkers Climate Safe Neighborhoods Task Force, where Skipper is contributing her understanding of her community’s needs. In each community, local residents are asked what would make their neglected neighborhood more livable in a hotter world. Groundwork helps pay for the chosen projects with grants from charitable foundations and local governments. The goal, Mingoya-LaFortune says, is “to push back against that urban history” that has left certain neighborhoods covered in asphalt and baking hot.

In Yonkers, Groundwork has contributed funds for water-retaining rain gardens and water-directing bioswales in municipal housing, designed to handle rain and prevent flooding during storms made more intense by climate change. The systems were built by local high-school students. Other sites in the network include neighborhoods in Milwaukee, Kansas City, San Diego, and other cities. In Elizabeth, New Jersey, it is raising funds to establish several “MicroForests”—ultradense plantings of native species. In New Orleans, they are helping pay for solar-powered shaded benches where people can recharge their phone during emergencies, including in the aftermath of hurricanes.

That’s not to say that hyperlocal efforts can’t benefit from national funding. The Biden administration’s ​​Justice40 Initiative, announced last year, is likely to direct more money to this kind of neighborhood-level adaptation. Mingoya-LaFortune says she expects that federal support will allow Groundwork to “significantly expand and advance our work.” The initiative pledges to allocate 40 percent of certain federal funding in climate-related fields to “disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution.”

Even if neighborhood adaptation taps into federal funds or foundation money, the nonprofit leaders I interviewed say the efforts are always more successful when led or at least guided by locals. For example, lots of climate-adaptation projects center on planting trees for shade, but Skipper told me that Southwest Yonkers can’t afford to wait for them to grow. She wants money for businesses downtown to install shade awnings so people without cars can safely do errands in the heat. She also wants reliably open cooling centers and legal support to help people behind on their electricity bills avoid shutoffs—not necessarily projects that well-meaning outsiders would have prioritized. Those well-meaning outsiders, Skipper said, can help by advocating for climate justice with local elected officials, protesting, and organizing—amplifying their neighbors’ voices. “Don’t get me wrong; we will definitely still take your money as well,” she said, laughing.

In Portland, Oregon, people from across the city are helping out with the physical work of neighborhood climate adaptation. Depave is a nonprofit that does exactly what you think: demolishes and removes unused and unnecessary pavement, such as concrete schoolyards and empty parking lots, and replaces it with green spaces, which can store carbon, retain water, provide shade, and clean the air. “I think the act of prying up asphalt in itself is radical,” the director, Katya Reyna, told me. Reyna and her team cut the pavement with large motorized saws, and then local volunteers pry it up with crowbars. Later, the site is planted and—crucially—maintained over the long term through weeding and planting parties.

Depave prioritizes public spaces that serve low-income, Black, and Indigenous communities. The organization and its volunteers have depaved at schools, tribal offices, Boys and Girls Clubs, and community centers. All told, they’ve removed about 230,000 square feet of pavement since 2008. “I firmly believe that actual lasting change does start from the community level,” Reyna said.

No one among us will live to see climate change “fixed” at a global level. But for people who live in neighborhoods already hit hard by global warming, hyperlocal action can yield real results. When hot, treeless, or flood-prone neighborhoods are greened and reengineered, residents can feel the difference on their skin. They can smell the trees. And these projects can save people like Skipper’s grandmother from heatstroke. “If we change the life of one person at a time, then we’re doing our part,” Skipper said.