Alleviating Urban Heat Traps, with Jeff Goodell

Lush green trees and foliage frames a backdrop of New York City buildings.

Urban greeneries are crucial to the development of major cities around the world, not just as “breathing space” for people but as effective solutions to heat dissipation and health related issues. Image credit: Ismael Lima on Unsplash.

Script by: Kendra Klang  |  Audio by: Jericho Rajninger  |  Blurb by: Alisia Silva

What Does Extreme Heat Do?

Since the pre-industrialized era, the global temperature has increased by about one degree Celsius. Although one degree may not seem significant, the consequences are increases in the intensity of heatwaves and drier conditions. In addition, in dense urban settings buildings trap and absorb this heat and cause even a higher area of heat relative to surrounding areas. The heat island effect is also exacerbated by the lack of greenery. With current fossil fuel emissions, increased heating of 1.5 degrees Celsius or more is predicted to happen globally within this decade. Among the most promising solutions to combat extreme heat in cities is the effort to promote natural systems – trees, creeks, and parks in cities and creating resilience hubs where people can stay cool and safe from dangerous temperatures.  Because heat impacts individuals in multiple ways, the response to extreme heat must also be multifaceted.  

Responses to Extreme Heat

There are many possible responses to extreme heat. On an individual level, for example, when human body temperature rises to the point of heat stroke, individuals are subject to serious illness or in some cases, death.  Heat poses a particular threat when the body is physically unable to cool down. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), between 2000 and 2016, 125 million more people were exposed to heat waves than in the period before 2000. Actions individuals can take to reduce heat exposure include avoiding going outside at peak temperatures, reducing the heat inside of homes, and if reducing heat at home is not an option, going where air conditioning is available. 

For some vulnerable populations like farmworkers, staying inside where there is air conditioning is not an option. In some states, like California, a temperature of 80 degrees Fahrenheit initiates the California’s Heat Illness Prevention Standard, which is enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).  The Standard requires that training, water, shade, and rest be provided to outdoor workers. Currently, there is no federal protection or policy for workers who may experience extreme heat. While a proposed rulemaking is in the works, it may take years before a final regulation is completed.

How to Establish Resilience and Safe Hubs

In the meantime, there are key actions that anyone can take, including something as simple as making extreme heat a topic of discussion as part of increasing awareness. By spreading awareness and recognizing the consequences of extreme heat, politicians and policymakers will be much more likely to pay attention to the issue and to community necessities. Global and local temperatures are continuing to rise, and, as a result, it is important to have community access to locations with air conditioning systems, heat pumps, and safety hubs particularly in communities whose residents do not have home air conditioners. Hubs may include libraries, churches, schools, and nonprofits which can be essential for providing both a cool place to shelter and a source of information and assistance.

Shifting to more green spaces is also an important solution to mitigate the impacts of increased heat. In New York, the Highline is a great example of transforming an old historic freight rail line into a park filled with rich greenery. The incorporation of nature into a previously urban dense space provides the city with more trees and access to green space. 

Addressing extreme heat in cities requires new approaches and creative thinking for a suite of implementation strategies to provide cooling to the public and creation of green space. 

Who is Our Guest

Jeff Goodell is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet, which focuses on responses to extreme heat. Goodell is also a journalist who has been covering climate change for more than two decades at Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, and many other publications. He has a BA from the University of California, Berkeley, and an MFA from Columbia University in New York.

Further Reading


Ethan: I’m Ethan Elkind, and this is Climate Break. Climate solutions in a hurry. Today’s proposal, making cities more resilient to the extreme heat caused by climate change. Jeff Goodell, author of The Heat Will Kill You First, shares why cities and their residents are so vulnerable to rising global temperatures.

Mr. Goodell: There’s a well known effect called the urban heat island effect. Cities, as we all know, are built out of concrete and asphalt and glass and steel. All these things absorb and then radiate heat back out. Many cities can be as much as 10 or 15 degrees hotter than the surrounding countryside. And that makes them far more dangerous. 

Ethan: But Goodell explains that there are straightforward strategies to diminish the impact of heat on city dwellers.

Mr. Goodell: Simple things like white roofs. If you think about hot places, the buildings were white and they were white for a reason. It’s because that reflects the sunlight and is much cooler.

Ethan: In addition to white roofs, Goodell advocates for increased access to resilience hubs, places where people who don’t have air conditioning can go to get cool.

Mr. Goodell: I live in Austin, Texas. On hot days here, they have extended hours of libraries. You can get on the bus for free when the temperature gets above a certain degree, so people who don’t have access to cool spaces can just hop on a bus.

Ethan: But while access to air conditioning may be important for short periods of extreme heat, Goodell offers some long-term solutions, as well.

Mr. Goodell: We have lots of ways of designing buildings and designing spaces with natural cooling, where we don’t need to use air conditioners. Everything from efficiency building codes to orientation away from the sun, capturing wind.

Ethan: Goodell’s new book is entitled The Heat Will Kill You First, and you can learn more at

Alleviating Urban Heat Traps, with Jeff Goodell