Scorching Phoenix Plans For An Even Hotter Future The Arizona city already logs more days over 100 degrees than any U.S. city, and climate researchers predict Phoenix will grow hotter still in the coming decades. Planners are taking the projections seriously, and are looking for ways to adapt the city and its residents to a hotter, drier reality.

Scorching Phoenix Plans For An Even Hotter Future

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


I'm Melissa Block. And we begin this hour with the latest from the NPR Cities Project.


BLOCK: This week and next, we're reporting on how cities are treating climate change as a reality. Today, we head to Phoenix, Arizona where it is uncommonly hot, even for August, in the desert city. Temperatures have topped 110 degrees for most of the past week and five of those days broke records. We asked a few people in Phoenix today how they're trying to stay cool.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I carry around this cup and I normally fill it with ice and then water. That keeps me cool. Sometimes I'll put it on my pressure points.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Drink hot coffee. It regulates your body temperature.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Well, I try to, first of all, stay in the shade and second of all, try to spend as much time in buildings during the heat peaks.

BLOCK: That was Marguerita Sedova(ph), William Kennedy(ph) and Jane Stephans(ph) on how to beat the heat in Arizona. Scientists say this summer's record temperatures are likely the result of a changing climate. And in most city halls, there's talk of sustainability and trying to mitigate the change.

CORNISH: But increasingly, there's talk of a new watch word, resilience. City planners expect a more volatile environment, so they're working on how to adapt, how to survive.

BLOCK: Today, what the means in the Sonoran desert. Here's Peter O'Dowd of member station KJZZ.

PETER O'DOWD, BYLINE: Here in John Larsala's driveway the view is bleak.

JOHN LARSALA: You see our tree is dead.

O'DOWD: The grass is dead, too. In fact, there is no grass anymore.

LARSALA: All these trees are dying because I can't put water on there.

O'DOWD: Larsala can't afford the water on a household income of $18,000 a year. His children and their friends play basketball in the barren yard. But once summer hits, you're more likely to find them inside. From July through September, Larsala keeps the doors and windows shut tight. To save money, he'll soak his kids in a cool bath and delay using the air conditioning until just before bedtime.

LARSALA: Whether you are inside, whether you are outside, the heat costs you money.

O'DOWD: Let me ask you how you feel about this. Climate scientists say that Arizona's going to get hotter. You just - the look on your face was of surprise.

LARSALA: Yes. It's going to be hotter than what it is right now? Who gonna live here? How are we gonna live here?

O'DOWD: Phoenix actually suffers from two heat problems. Desert nights don't cool down they way they used to because energy from the sun is trapped in roads and buildings. Researchers call this the urban heat island effect. As Phoenix grows, so does the problem.

NANCY SELOVER: We keep thinking we'll probably see a night when we only get down to 100 as a minimum temperature, which is kind of shocking.

O'DOWD: Nancy Selover is the state climatologist. We're standing outside in a low-income neighborhood near Phoenix.

SELOVER: There are swamp coolers on most of these houses and some of them probably don't have air conditioning.

O'DOWD: Swamp or evaporative coolers are cheaper than air-conditioning, but they're also less effective.

SELOVER: It's going to be pretty unbearable.

O'DOWD: And potentially deadly. Second, researchers predict climate change will make droughts longer and temperatures higher. Data from the North American Regional Climate Change Assessment Program predict that by 2040, sustained heat waves above 114 degrees will be a yearly crisis in Phoenix, each one lasting a sweltering three weeks.

SELOVER: As a desert city, Phoenix is kind of a laboratory for us to be able to figure out what works and what doesn't work and try to mitigate those things.

O'DOWD: Do you think we'll have to live differently?

SELOVER: We may well have to live differently.

O'DOWD: And how that might happen is something city officials are starting to think about. One idea is to cover 25 percent of Phoenix with shade trees. But some argue for much greater lifestyle adaptations. Architect John Meunier studies pre-industrial desert cities around the world and he brings their lessons here to a stop along the light rail near downtown.

The number one thing that these older cities could teach us in a new desert city like Phoenix, what is it?

JOHN MEUNIER: Well, I think it's everything to do with managing without having to use a lot of extra energy and power.

O'DOWD: To do that, Meunier says planners could encourage 10 times as many people to live around this train station. Getting more use out of light rail would take cars and heat off the street. These people would also live in taller buildings. Meunier says desert cities in Yemen, for example, take advantage of tall buildings to shade narrow streets.

MEUNIER: That's crucially important. I mean, not being exposed to the direct sun's rays makes a great big difference.

O'DOWD: Instead of exposed front yards and backyards, older desert cities employ well-ventilated courtyards. Mediterranean cities paint roads and rooftops white to reflect the sunlight. Meunier says it's the way we've built Phoenix that will make us vulnerable.

MEUNIER: I'm not arguing that we should all live at a higher density. What I am arguing is that there's a lot to be gained by having more of us live at higher density.

O'DOWD: All right. So I'm going to leave John Meunier behind and jump on the light rail here and take it north about three miles. I want to show you how this type of building might actually work because for Meunier's ideas to become reality, developers will have to make the choice to build differently. And in some cases, they already have.

And here we are at Devine Legacy. It's a housing complex that's designed for people with lower incomes and it's right next to the rail line. Every window is dual-paned, and the building is also superinsulated, which means the typical apartment at Devine Legacy is about 40 percent more energy efficient. Now, if you go through this gate you'll emerge into a courtyard.

Four-story buildings rise up on either side of you. There's shade everywhere, and a breeze moves through. Even on a day when it's 113 degrees in Phoenix, it doesn't really feel like it.

FELICIA MCMULLEN: Having a cool place to live is more important to me than food.

O'DOWD: Before Felicia McMullen moved here, she says she was sick and stressed. She sometimes spent $300 a month to cool her suburban home. Now...

MCMULLEN: I don't have that problem.

O'DOWD: Her last electric bill was $60. The stress is gone.

ERNESTO FONSECA: People in extreme climates learn to live with it, you know, and that's part of a resilient society.

O'DOWD: Ernesto Fonseca helped test Devine Legacy's energy use before it opened late last year. The idea of resilience is something he thinks about. It means that people who live in Phoenix must do more than try to solve the cause of escalating temperatures, they must also withstand the changes as they happen.

FONSECA: We don't have a choice.

O'DOWD: That's why he considers this complex a small victory in what may someday be a more complicated effort to stay cool. At 4570 North Central Avenue in Phoenix, Peter O'Dowd for the NPR Cities Project.

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