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Urban Heat Mapping Project Aims To Address Race-Based Policies

Durham County Sustainability Manager Tobin Fried (right) talking to a volunteer (left). The table is set up in the parking lot of the Scrap Exchange Durham on the evening of July 23.
Celeste Gracia
Durham County Sustainability Manager Tobin Freid (right) talking to a volunteer (left). The table is set up in the parking lot of the Scrap Exchange Durham on the evening of July 23.

On a warm evening in late July, Tobin Freid greeted volunteers as they approached her table in the parking lot of the Scrap Exchange in Durham. Her table was littered with papers, equipment, water bottles and a box of pastries.

Despite a long day of organizing, she enthusiastically helped them sign in and explained their assignments to them.

"Here, this is where you're going to start," Freid said, pointing to a map. "Go to Google, and go there. You want to be there by 7."

Finally, she handed the volunteers a sensor to attach to their car. The sensors measure heat stress index.

Freid, the Durham County sustainability manager, explained that data from the sensors will be used to create heat maps of Raleigh and Durham.

"Then we get to see where these urban heat islands [are] - these little pockets that are hotter than other areas, or that don't cool off later in the day," Freid said. "Then we can start designing programs and policies to address this. Is it an area where we can plant more trees? Or put in more greenspace?"

Extreme temperatures, including extreme heat, will become more frequent and more severe as climate change worsens. But low income communities of color in urban areas are more likely to experience extreme heat because of historically unequal policies.

Mapping Heat

Car heat sensor
Celeste Gracia
A heat sensor attached to the passenger side of a vehicle. Volunteers had to follow a speed limit of 35 miles per hour so sensors could accurately collect data.

Dozens of volunteers either drove, walked or biked about 25 routes throughout Raleigh and Durham. They followed these routes at three separate times on the same day- one in the morning, afternoon and evening.

Raleigh and Durham participated in this national program along with New York City, San Diego and parts of Indiana, among other places across the country. The program is mostly led by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association.

The data will be sent to analytical company CAPA Strategies in Portland, Oregon. The final heat maps will be sent back to Raleigh and Durham in a few months.

Along with creating heat maps, the data will also be used to address several other issues within one city.

"[The sustainability] office is going to use it to inform some of the resilience building strategies in our community climate action plan," said Nicole Goddard, a sustainability analyst for the city of Raleigh. "Our transportation office may use it to think about where they might want to put covered bus shelters. Our parks department might use that to think about parks acquisition projects or even parks amenities."

While all of these ideas may help in the future, officials are now dealing with decisions made decades ago about where people could live.

"Both Raleigh and Durham have a really painful history and legacy of racist policy and planning that serve to segregate both cities based off of race," said Max Cawley, a program manager at the Durham Museum of Life and Science, and a lead organizer of this project. "These redlined areas, the areas that were given the lowest grade because specifically they had the most people of color and black people in them, today are most likely most at risk during a heat event."

"Data that comes out of this project... we hope will shed a light on [the inequality], and help to make better decisions to right some of these wrongs."
Max Cawley, program manager at the Durham Museum of Life and Science

These neighborhoods often don't have enough green space or tree canopy, and tend to have much higher levels of impervious surfaces when compared to mostly white neighborhoods. People in these communities are also more likely to live in poverty and not have health insurance.

"Data that comes out of this project... we hope will shed a light on that, and help to make better decisions to right some of these wrongs," Cawley said.

Several volunteers who participated in data collection agree with this sentiment. Allie Jacobs lives in southeast Raleigh and volunteered to bike around downtown.

"The temperature difference is noticeable being in my neighborhood versus walking Fayetteville Street or in Oakwood," Jacobs said. "So I'd love to help out and get some data and see if we can make the city more equitable for everyone."

Another volunteer, Marla Kasper, came from Cary to drive around east Durham.

"Being on the data collection side of research is really important. Not only as a nurse or a medical professional, but just as a community member," Kasper said. "I know this is going to be used for good. It's really exciting."

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story misspelled Tobin Freid's name. It has been corrected.

Celeste Gracia covers the environment for WUNC. She has been at the station since September 2019 and started off as morning producer.
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