Davos Agenda

How scholars are helping Los Angeles beat the heat

Los Angeles is experiencing hotter and longer heat waves, putting residents at risk.

Hotter and longer heatwaves have been hitting the Californian city, placing pressure on residents' well-being. Image: Pexels/Mary Taylor

Les Dunseith
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Davos Agenda

  • Los Angeles is experiencing hotter and longer heatwaves, putting residents at risk.
  • Researchers at University College, Los Angeles (UCLA) are developing new tools and strategies to help the city adapt.
  • One tool is a heat vulnerability index that identifies neighbourhoods most at risk from heatwaves.
  • The researchers are working with the city to educate residents about heat safety and to develop new cooling centres.

As southern California braces for more heat waves this summer, the city of Los Angeles has launched its most comprehensive and equitable response ever, thanks in part to partnerships with student, faculty and staff researchers from the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.

Interactive mapping tools co-developed by Luskin School–affiliated scholars and the Public Health Alliance of Southern California, for instance, are helping government officials and social services providers better visualize the neighborhoods most in danger from extreme heat. And research has helped ensure that city resources like cooling centers are being deployed in areas with high numbers of low-income residents and communities of color — groups that tend to be disproportionately affected by hot weather but whom previous heat-mitigation efforts often failed to reach.

These and other UCLA contributions are informing the city’s equity-based approach to the threat posed by climate change and rising temperatures, said Marta Segura, Los Angeles’ first chief heat officer and director of the city’s Climate Emergency Mobilization Office. Launched in 2021, CEMO is responsible for coordinating across agencies to create a cohesive response to extreme heat.

“It’s my belief that in focusing on equitable climate solutions and investing first and foremost in the historically disinvested communities, we will accelerate climate solutions for everybody,” Segura, a UCLA alumna, said during a May panel discussion at UCLA organized by the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation.

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Connecting research to policy

Using data gathered in partnership with UCLA scholars, CEMO was able to identify which cooling centers received a lot of use in previous years, which didn’t and where the need was greatest. This summer, the number of city-coordinated facilities offering heat relief — including air-conditioned recreation centers and public libraries that stay open beyond regular hours — has expanded significantly.

Corinne Odom discusses the importance of cooling centers at the Comprehensive Project’s June 2023 presentation.
Corinne Odom of the Comprehensive Project discusses the importance of cooling centres. Image: UCLA Luskin School/Les Dunseith

Among those helping the city evolve its hot weather response were 13 students who earned their master’s degrees in urban and regional planning this past June. As participants in the Luskin School’s 2022–23 Comprehensive Project class, they prepared a report on heat equity for CEMO under the direction of Gregory Pierce, adjunct associate professor of urban planning and co-director of the Luskin Center for Innovation.

The students focused on three areas — cooling centers, emergency response and bus shelters. Their final report (PDF), released in June, commended Los Angeles for being at the forefront of government efforts on extreme heat but noted room for improvement to ensure public safety and equitable distribution of resources.

Corinne Odom was among the students who looked at cooling centers. She and her classmates spoke with staff members at libraries who were eager to help but frustrated that people in danger didn’t seem to know these facilities were available.

“Visitor counts at cooling center locations last summer were low,” Odom said. “So, really informing people that they’re available is important, and that’s something that CEMO is prioritizing.”

Odom and her classmates were supportive of the city’s efforts to create “resiliency centers” by offering a broader range of social services programs and heat-related amenities at locations like recreation centers and public libraries that traditionally serve as cooling centers. They also noted that CEMO’s communication efforts also recommend informal locations where residents can duck in quickly to escape extreme heat.

“A mall could be a cooling center,” Odom said, “or a movie theater.”

In the greatest danger

A particularly difficult challenge for city officials is reaching the people in the most danger — the unhoused population.

Michelle Gallarza, a Comprehensive Project participant who contributed to research on heat and housing insecurity, noted that the unhoused population’s lack of shelter makes them particularly vulnerable during heat waves.

“These people are more likely to suffer from the extreme aspects of heat and a really increased likelihood for illness and, unfortunately, death,” she said.

In Los Angeles County, unhoused people accounted for 42% of heat-related deaths in 2022, even though they make up less than 1% of the population. Beyond having less access to indoor cooling than the general population and facing challenges getting information about emergency resources, they may not always feel comfortable in city-provided facilities, said Gallarza, who spoke with an unhoused person who said cooling centers have not felt very welcoming.

Michelle Gallarza, shown here talking about the Comprehensive Project’s findings, remembers the lights in her Los Angeles grade school being left off during heat waves to keep classrooms cool. “The same thing would happen when I would go home,” she said. “We’d just have fans blowing and no lights on.”
Michelle Gallarza talks about the Comprehensive Project’s findings. Image: UCLA Luskin School/Les Dunseith

“In our sensitivity and vulnerability analysis,” Odom said, “we thought that there should be more specific solutions catered to that community, especially in collaboration with organizations that are trusted and knowingly support unhoused communities.”

Generally speaking, Segura said, a person in danger doesn’t need to be out of the heat for long to benefit, and this is where resilience centers, particularly smaller ones, can help. She and other city officials hope to persuade, for example, local fast-food restaurants to serve as centers for unhoused people and others on hot days.

“With just three or four hours of refuge and recovery, you can make it to the next day,” she said. “People don’t need to stay there 24 hours.”

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The need for transit shelters

Other Comprehensive Project students focused on Los Angeles’ Sidewalk and Transit Amenities Program, recently established to support the expansion of transit shelters in a city where only 26% of Metro bus stops currently offer shade.

Project participant Miguel Miguel said he was surprised to discover that the city’s shelter placement decisions were often related more to political and commercial considerations, like advertising potential, than protecting people from heat.

“We never suspected that would be such a driving factor,” he said. “We finally realized that the contract explicitly said that [shelter providers] needed to maintain advertising revenue to support the operations of the program.”

In the end, the students recommended prioritizing bus shelter development on geographic equity, with a focus on the Harbor Gateway area near San Pedro and parts of the San Fernando Valley area that have high ridership and where historically underserved populations frequently experience extreme temperatures.

The final report of the Comprehensive Project class recommended revising criteria for heat emergencies and heat warnings, setting lower thresholds than previous city policy. And their emergency response analysis found a statistically significant correlation between 911 call volumes and heat across the city but no similar spike in calls to the 311 system, which connects residents to city services, including heat mitigation. More outreach is thus needed to ensure that people seek help before it’s too late.

Miguel Miguel delivers findings from the Comprehensive Project’s final report. Miguel, a San Fernando Valley resident who has seen the impact of dangerously high temperatures on communities without adequate heat protection, said, “It was really important for me to be involved and to bring lived experience and emotional compassion into this [research].”
Miguel Miguel, a San Fernando Valley resident who has seen the impact of high temperatures, delivers findings from the Comprehensive Project’s final report. Image: UCLA Luskin School/Les Dunseith

Segura said in May at UCLA that the city had developed an equity index to guide policy decisions, but it didn’t yet have a strong climate equity focus. Now, Los Angeles has begun ts climate vulnerability assessment and fully developing its heat action plan.

“This information that the UCLA researchers are bringing to us is going to be part of the consideration and the development of those plans,” she said. “So, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect.”

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