Cooperate to beat the heat

Cooperate to beat the heat

This summer has been the hottest on record on Earth.

The Roanoke Valley was no exception to the heat, with news reports citing 2023 as the second hottest summer in the region. But the rising temperatures have been particularly stifling for some neighborhoods in Roanoke, neighborhoods affected by harmful urban planning practices.

Theodore Lim, assistant professor of urban affairs and planning in Virginia Tech’s School of Public and International Affairs, is working with the city of Roanoke to address the underlying issues that have led to the heat’s impact on the urban island. This phenomenon occurs in cities when there is a shortage of green spaces and an excess of solid, heat-trapping materials, such as concrete. These areas are usually hotter than the surrounding countryside. According to Lim’s research, some stressors, such as poverty, housing and gun violence, are already emerging in these neighborhoods.

Lim and his interdisciplinary team have been awarded a 2022 National Science Foundation Phase 1 Civic Innovation Challenge Planning Grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). It provided them with $50,000 to support the rapid implementation of research-based, community-led pilot projects that address heat resilience priorities.

Now, the team has received a Phase 2 award to further aid their efforts.

The award, announced in September, gives Lim $1 million to spend over the next year as he implements pilot programs in Roanoke. Lim’s project, “Youth-Focused Civic Technology, Science and Arts to Improve Community Infrastructure for Heat Resilience,” is one of 19 university initiatives nationwide to receive funding.

why does it matter

Lim plans to address rising temperatures in the city through community awareness and capacity building. His team designs programs for the city’s youth, focusing on young people living in areas particularly vulnerable to the effects of rising temperatures. Activities will include science, technology, engineering, mathematics, arts, spirituality and a high school workforce development program — all intended to produce data that will inform future planning for neighborhoods experiencing the worst effects of rising temperatures in Roanoke.

The data will include quantitative information to measure how people experience temperature in the city. The researchers will collect data from wearable temperature sensors and indoor and outdoor temperature monitoring equipment. Lim said the way people experience temperature depends largely on travel patterns, where they actually spend time, the location and type of housing they stay in, and whether they have access to air conditioning. The group hopes to monitor temperatures at bus stops, for example, using wearable sensors.

Data will also include qualitative experiences of heat, urban nature, history, and civic engagement that individuals will produce through artistic and spiritual programs. Qualitative data—such as oral histories, paintings, poetry, and public murals—will reveal community assets, the ways in which people prioritize investment in neighborhoods, and how they perceive the safety of their community under the pressures of global climate change. The research team will track how collaboration between civic organizations and city agencies shapes how individuals conceptualize the challenge of climate change adaptation, among many other pressing issues in the city.

Dozens of community partners are contributing to the project and are developing the idea of ​​“trauma-informed, healing-centered” urban resilience planning to acknowledge the harmful effects of previous urban planning initiatives, including a deep distrust of government initiatives in the African American community, Lim said.

He said: “The project seeks to build a single path towards healing some of those wounds, through deep and real community participation and civic capacity building.”

The grant is an example of how the City of Roanoke is continually looking for opportunities for partnerships to strengthen the community and “target resources in areas impacted by historic disinvestment,” said Wayne Leftwich, director of planning for the City of Roanoke.

“We believe that combining high-quality data collection, community engagement, arts and culture is an innovative approach to developing strategies to help mitigate extreme temperatures,” Leftwich said.

Project goals

  • Engaging youth and families on the issue of urban adaptation to the impacts of global climate change, specifically on the issue of rising temperatures
  • Experiment with different urban planning practices in communities most vulnerable to the effects of rising temperatures
  • Increasing society’s ability to deal with the risks of rising temperatures
  • Improving civic engagement processes and rebuilding trust

Who is involved?

  • Academic researchers: Eric Weissman, Virginia Tech associate professor of forest resources and environmental conservation; Jake Grohs, Virginia Tech associate professor of engineering education, and Malie Schilling, Ph.D. Student in engineering education. Narain Ramakrishnan, professor of engineering at Virginia Tech; Nathan Self, Virginia Tech research associate in computer science; Julia Gohlke, associate professor of environmental health; Paroma Wagle, Assistant Professor of Urban Affairs and Planning in the School of Public and International Affairs; Jack Carroll, Master of Urban and Regional Planning student; David Moore, Lara Nagel, Mary Beth Donkenberger, and Andrea Briceno Mosquera of the Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance; and Laura Hartman, associate professor of environmental studies at Roanoke College
  • Government Agencies: Roanoke Department of Planning and Sustainability Office, Roanoke Parks and Recreation, Roanoke City Public Schools, Roanoke Public Libraries, Roanoke Stormwater Management
  • Community Partners: Antwain Calloway, Community Leader; Deka Knight, trauma specialist; PJ Lark, Community Arts Roanoke; Darlene Lewis, director of the Hope Center, and Jane Gabrielle McCadden, artist; Antonio Stovall, community leader; Roanoke Chapter of the Kiwanis Club; Roanoke trees; foundry; Various community churches

Voice of Virginia Tech

“The premise of the NSF Civic Innovation Grant aligns perfectly with VT’s Haut Prosem Ethics. “It’s about community-identified needs and partnerships between academia and the community,” Lim said. “It promotes participatory action research – simultaneously meeting the needs of practical social problems while also advancing research and creating new knowledge. VT graduate students will also be closely involved in community learning and partner with high school students in Roanoke to support bottom-up planning .

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