Climate collaborative maps Portland heat islands: Informing infrastructure approaches to extreme heat

Originally posted on the Center for Sustainable Infrastructure Blog.

By Fletcher Beaudoin, assistant director of PSU’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions and Vivek Shandas, professor of Urban Studies and Planning and research director for PSU’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions.

Portland, Oregon, probably isn’t the first place you think of when the term “heat island” comes up. Rain? Yes. Heat? No. What about Phoenix, Los Angeles, cities in the Middle East—those really hot places? The trouble with these conventional perceptions of temperature is that places that have historically dealt with heat have been working on adaptation measures for decades, and in some cases millennia. With climate change and destabilization we are starting to see, and indeed experience, changes in extreme weather, such as heat waves that can have profound and far-reaching impacts, especially in places that haven’t had to cope with such events in the past.

Portland is one of those places. Preparation and adaptation of the city’s infrastructure is increasingly on the minds of city staff, researchers, and citizens. Over the past two years, an interdisciplinary team of researchers at Portland State University (PSU) and stakeholders from government and community organizations are working to understand potential changes in the urban climate, including spatially-explicit descriptions of urban heat islands.

Researchers are creating maps that overlay temperature data during heatwaves with city infrastructure and population information to identify communities that may be most vulnerable to severe impacts of heat waves, which are expected to increase in duration and intensity due to climate change. Initial findings have been used to create a tool for assessing vulnerability to heat waves. In the coming year, this team will develop infrastructure strategies that can be used by the city of Portland and local communities to adapt and reduce heat island impacts across the city.

This project is one of over a dozen research and student engagement projects that have been launched under the Portland Climate Action Collaborative. These projects range from evaluating the economic and environmental costs and benefits of a “green” transportation loop in Portland, to modeling new flooding patterns on the Willamette River, to exploring the full impacts and benefits of a deconstruction policy.

The Climate Collaborative is a partnership between the city of Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability and Portland State University’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions. The Bureau of Planning and Sustainability manages land-use planning and supports planning and implementation of sustainability programs and policies. The PSU Institute for Sustainable Solutions is a university-community “sustainability broker” that supports research and student engagement partnerships between organizations in the Portland region and PSU. In the coming year, the Institute for Sustainable Solutions expects to extend the Collaborative to other bureaus and government organizations working on climate in the Portland region and also look for collaborative opportunities with communities from Vancouver, BC, to Portland – a region known as the “Emerald Corridor.”

To date, participants in the Climate Collaborative describe it as an strong framework for deepening student understanding about climate change, developing engaged scholarship, building capacity with city staff and community, and advancing on-the-ground policies in the Climate Action Plan. The Collaborative achieves these goals by ensuring that every project is intentional and co-developed among the stakeholders, with an eye to designing a program that impacts student learning outcomes, faculty productivity, and city planning and infrastructure mandates; it also serves as a framework for joint fundraising, communications, and assessment across all of the collaborations.

Portland, and indeed other cities in the Pacific Northwest can learn from hotter places. At the same time, the public perception that heat waves do not pose threats to residents of the Pacific Northwest could prevent us from planning for climate changes that are already underway. Consider the fact that only about 33 percent of people in the Portland metro area have air conditioning systems. If another 33 percent install air conditioners—an anticipated response to heat waves—can our energy infrastructure system handle the additional demand? Moreover, the rapid urban development in Pacific Northwest cities is removing large trees in record numbers. The reduction of green infrastructure—an effective front-line to heat waves— gives further cause for concern. Place-based policies, plans, and programs must reflect the opportunities to learn from other places with more experience managing urban heat, while considering local pressures that can prevent swift action.

Responding to complex sustainability challenges like climate change requires taking on new models for infrastructure deployment, community engagement, and policy development that enable cities to prepare and then adapt over time to changing conditions. This work requires endurance and an ability to effectively integrate new data into moving processes—and if done right, it can pave a path toward developing sustainable and resilient cities of the future.