Faith communities can play a role in addressing urban heat islands.
Urban heat islands are localized areas with much hotter temperatures than surrounding rural and suburban areas. Oftentimes, they occur in highly urbanized areas where there are many buildings, paved roads, parking lots, and other infrastructure that tends to absorb and hold heat throughout the day. Likewise, areas where heat islands occur tend to lack vegetation, such as trees. Vegetation plays an important role in combating heat islands because it helps to cool the surrounding environment through evapotranspiration (the process by which plants release moisture into the air), while providing shade. There are many steps and actions that faith communities can take to combat urban heat islands. Planting trees, a practice that Christ Kingdom Church in District Heights (pictured below right) and Carolina Missionary Baptist in Fort Washington (below left) undertook through IPC's Trees for Sacred Places program, is among these actions.
Lack of vegetation contributes to heat islands, as do various human activities. Transportation, such as busses and cars, emit heat and are often highly concentrated in urban areas. Similarly, many human activities and industrial processes emit waste heat: heat energy that is generated as a byproduct of several human activities and industrial processes. Poor air circulation in urban areas exacerbates this effect, as ventilation and air flow can be reduced by narrow streets, street configurations, and tall buildings.
Heat islands pose an environmental justice concern, as they most frequently occur in underserved neighborhoods, most commonly affecting low-income and redlined communities. Urban heat island impacts can be worsened by a lack of access to cooling resources and green infrastructure, such as cooling centers and well-shaded community parks.
Heat islands intensify existing inequalities, as underserved communities face increased health risks, such as heat-related illnesses and respiratory problems. The EPA reports that heat islands "contribute to heat-related deaths and heat-related illnesses such as general discomfort, respiratory difficulties, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and non-fatal heat stroke". Likewise, communities affected by heat islands frequently contend with higher energy bills, as more air conditioning may be required to keep homes cool and comfortable, compared to communities that do not suffer from the heat island effect.
As a community called to care for the Earth and all of its inhabitants, people of faith can play an important role in combating heat islands and addressing the injustices they present. Here are some ways your congregation and team of faithful green leaders can take action to combat heat islands:
- Become a community cooling center. Cooling centers are spaces where people can go to find relief from heat. Many cooling centers are congregational homes, museums, schools, libraries, and malls. They provide an essential service in mitigating the health impacts of urban heat islands.
- Advocate for just and sustainable policies. Faith communities can help empower change through advocating for sustainable policy, such as those that promote increased green spaces, energy-efficient buildings, and public transportation, that can help reduce green spaces. If you or your faith community is interested in getting involved with advocacy, consider joining IPC’s advocacy volunteers in making a difference for our shared home.
- Green your home of worship. Planting gardens and trees, as well as installing green roofs, are all actions congregations can take to mitigate heat islands. Trees and gardens provide cooling and shade, and are an invaluable resource for combating heat islands. If your congregation is interested in planting trees, consider participating in the Trees for Sacred Places program. Through this program, IPC partners have planted over 20,000 trees – if you’re interested in adding trees to your home of worship, please fill out IPC’s Trees for Sacred Places interest form.
Faith communities are empowered to take action in combating heat islands - through being a community resource, advocacy, and providing important greenspace and vegetation. As heat islands present a threat to human health and the environment, people of faith are called together to heal the earth and care for our neighbors who are affected by environmental injustices. Here at IPC, we're grateful to work with a network of congregations dedicated to caring for our neighbors and shared home - join us in taking action!
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