Transcript of Get Ready Report podcast, episode 50

This is APHA’s Get Ready Report, coming to you from Washington D.C.

Welcome. Today, we speak with Dr. Patrick Kinney, a Beverly Brown professor of Urban Health at Boston University’s School of Public Health.


How are you doing today Dr. Kinney?

Very well, thanks.

Wonderful, well thanks again for taking some time to speak with us. Our first question today is, what are some general health risks that come from living in an urban community?


Well, there are quite a few risks that people face from a health point of view in cities. The way that I think about that problem is from the point of view of the environment. So I’m thinking about, especially air pollution, I’m thinking about, you know water, even the temperature, you know the living conditions that we sort of have to go about our daily lives in. So, you know if you think, if you want to focus on air pollution for a second, cities have a lot of great advantages for people but they also bring together in a, in a very small, concentrated place, a lot of pollution sources, like buses and trucks and cars — lots of things that are burning fuels and producing pollution that is getting spewed into the atmosphere. And the problem is there’re so many people there, breathing, you know it becomes sort of a hotspot for risks from air pollution, and that’s why I think it’s really important for us to think about ways to make cities as healthy as possible.

So then, how and why should people living in urban neighborhoods be concerned with climate change?

Yea, that’s a really good question. Climate change is an issue that a lot of people have been hearing about, and I think more and more Americans are concerned about it. I think, you know people can see that weather is changing, that it’s not the same as it’s been. If you look at the data each year is hotter than the one before in terms of the average temperatures. You know we still get cold snaps and we get snow of course, but if you look on average, each year is a little bit warmer than the one before and we’re you know, we’re getting less of the heavy snowfall. So, we should be concerned about climate change and in urban neighborhoods because of things like extreme heat wave. People in urban settings, especially under-privileged populations are quite vulnerable to high temperatures, both outdoors as well as indoors, and climate change is bringing more and more of those high temperatures and more extreme high temperatures. Also, cities often are along coast lines, and sea level is rising because of climate change, storms are getting more severe because of climate change, so we face risks from that direction as well.

Hmm, so is this summer expected to be significantly hotter in cities compared to the previous years?

You know we can’t predict for sure, but if we look at recent history, it certainly seems like that’s a very likely possibility. 2016 was the hottest year on record, and it was hotter than the previous record, which was 2015, and I think 2014 was the one before that. So it’s been a steady increase over the last few years. You don’t necessarily expect every year to keep getting warmer than the one before, because you know, there are some years for other reasons that, that might just end up being a little cooler, but if you look over the long run you know, like if you start to chart things up over ten years, yeah, I mean in general years are getting hotter and hotter, and I expect 2017 to be, to be at least as hot if not hotter than the previous years.  

What would you say it means to be resilient?
Well the term resiliency is used a lot these days when talking about climate change impacts and I think there are some kind of formal definitions of it and I don’t have one in front of me but, basically the way I think about it is that resiliency means being able to avoid consequences of extreme events like storms and floods and heat waves. To either avoid them in the first place, or if, if affected to be able to bounce back pretty quickly, without too much sort of longer-term damage. I think of it as sort of being elastic and being able to bounce back, and maybe even get built in systems so that we’re stronger you know, when we respond to these kinds of events, and we’ll be more resilient as time goes on.

Definitely, that was a great explanation. So what are some steps urban communities specifically can take to be resilient and prepared?

I think there’s several things. One important point is to build strong community linkages and ties across organizations, across communities. I think communication and sort of sharing of resources is really important, and having that in place so that when, when there is a disaster, that people know how to, how to respond and how to communicate and how to help each other in that, in that situation. So that’s, that’s one thing, maybe easier said than done but I think a lot communities do have a lot of, a lot of really strong resources of that kind that can help them weather, weather these extreme events. I think that on more sort of infrastructure point of view, cities are installing sort of infrastructure that make the cities more resilient when big storms come. For example, green spaces that capture the storm water and allow it to sort of percolate and not create a flood in the street right away, and cause problems of that kind, is an example. Also, from the point of view of heat waves, heat waves and the effects on health that they have, you know again planting of trees and also painting roofs white, and, and just sort of being smart about how we structure our built environment, so that it can stay as cool as possible in the face of these heat waves. I think those are some of the resiliency initiatives that could be very useful I think.

You mentioned painting roofs white, how necessarily does that help?

Ah yeah, that’s a good question. It’s not, maybe not obvious. But cities get hot in the summer time. Even hotter than the surrounding countryside, and that’s because buildings and pavement absorbs a lot of energy from the sun and then gets warmed up, and then gives off that energy sort of throughout the day and throughout the night. So, we can avoid some of that by having surfaces of buildings be, be painted white. So what happens in that case is that the sun just hits it and it bounces; the sunlight bounces off. Rather than heating up the surface that energy from the sun will sort of bounce back out into space. And so you know that’s why ice and snow are also really cooling. You know in, in the winter time we don’t have as much concern about heat because a lot of that energy that’s coming from the sun is just getting reflected back and that’s the same thing that white roofs can do. So even though, you know in the summer time when it’s hot out, as long as you can keep some of that heat from being absorbed by the buildings you can reduce that heat and, and make temperatures a little more hospitable to people.

Wow that was some great information. Now, what are some basic steps families can take to help clean the air in urban communities?


Yeah, right, good point. I think air pollution is really one of the big environmental challenges in cities, and as I mentioned before, traffic sources like trucks and buses and cars too are important reasons for the air pollution. So I think cities can get cleaner, if we advocate for cleaner vehicles. So making sure that, either getting away from diesel as a fuel or, making sure that the vehicles that do burn diesel, like the big trucks and buses, that they all are using the best available technology that controls the emissions. And there are some really good sort of “clean diesel” technologies that are available that are being used by some cities to avoid some of the pollution. So it’s not really a family thing, but families can advocate for that, and support those kinds of initiatives. Also, sort of an individual basis, you know the choices that we make about our personal transportation have impact on air pollution. So, if we can take public transportation or walk or bicycle to get from point A to point B rather than taking a cab or driving a car, the actual air pollution emission is much, much less with some of those other modes of transport, and we can be making the air cleaner and reducing health effects and also reducing our impact on the climate as well.

Even though buses do spew out a lot of pollution in some cases, because there’s so many people on the bus, that the amount of pollution per person, even though it’s a lot in total, it’s not very much per person. Whereas if you’re just a single person driving in a car, even though the car is putting out less pollution than the bus, but that’s all being generated by one person. So the amount of pollution per person, usually per car is much greater than, than it is for a bus. Because you get like, you know, 30 or 40 people in a bus, and they’re sort of spreading around the responsibility for all that pollution and really not producing very much pollution. And especially that’s true, if, in addition to riding the bus, you also have buses that are driving with the best clean technologies. For example in New York City, all of the city-owned buses are, you know, are all very clean in terms of the emissions that they put out and that’s something that’s come into place over the last 10 years, and it’s really had a big, a big benefit for air quality.

So, are there any natural disasters or emergencies people living in urban communities should look out for now that it’s summertime?


The first thing that we need to worry about it is heat waves, or basically just periods of time when there’s one day after another when temperatures get really hot you know. And what’s hot sort of depends on where you are in the country. In New York, you know if it gets above 90, we call that a heat wave, you know in some places in the south, maybe it’d have to get a little bit warmer, but you kind of get used to what you’re used to. But you know heat waves I think are the biggest one that we should be watching for. Because we know that heat can kill. Especially vulnerable people, elderly people, people with pre-existing diseases or people living in poor communities where they may not have access or be able to use their air conditioners, are really at risk. And then the other thing is along the coastline, in the east at least, the hurricane season is coming soon, and as I mentioned I think before, climate change is making those storms bigger and more intense in general. And so we ought to definitely keep an eye out for the big storms that could be a problem.

Now, you sort of already touched on this earlier, but to wrap up, what are some examples of cities doing good work to protect their residents in the summer time?

I think that a lot of what cities try to do to address this challenge is providing communication, you know, and knowledge, and advanced warning, of when a severe heat event is coming and providing information that people can use to help protect themselves. Early warning systems are an important component of the ways cities try to protect residents. Also, there are things called “cooling shelters” so basically, you know, indoor spaces that have air conditioning that are made available throughout the community when extreme heat occurs so that people can find relief even if they don’t have, you know, the ability within their own apartments to stay cool. And then, yeah you did mention earlier, at the sort of urban planning scale, there’s also things that can be done regarding increased green space: You know, tree planting and as well as the white roof surfaces can make neighborhoods cooler and more comfortable and healthier.

Well Dr. Kinney this has been a very educational talk, not only for me but it will be for our listeners and our members as well. Thank you so much for speaking with APHA.

Thank you very much for having me.

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www.aphagetready.org.