Environment & Science

LA just got a $320,000 grant to prevent deaths from urban heat

File: Downtown Los Angeles.
File: Downtown Los Angeles.
David McNew/Getty Images

While Southern California is in the midst of an intense heat wave, the U.S. Forest Service has awarded a timely grant to an L.A. group with the ultimate goal of preventing heat-related deaths. 

The Los Angeles Urban Cooling Collaborative, a national partnership led by TreePeople, will receive $320,000 to research urban heat. The grant will fund the climate science modeling portion of the program over two years, which is just phase one of the LAUCC’s full $2 million, four-year project. 

The first step is developing a neighborhood scale model and analysis of L.A. to see which neighborhoods are most vulnerable to heat-related mortality, TreePeople's Edith de Guzman told KPCC. She said heat kills more people in the U.S. than all other weather-related causes combined.

What seems like an ambitious goal, actually has a somewhat simple solution: more trees. If you were to look at a satellite image of L.A. — or any other urban city — what you would mostly see are parking lots, streets and a whole lot of roofs.

L.A. has a fairly low amount of tree coverage. De Guzman said the last assessment that was done within the city showed about a 21 percent tree canopy cover. 

More canopy cover would mean lower temperatures and more shade offering opportunities to cope with days of extreme heat, which are defined as 95 degrees or greater.

“If we have a neighborhood in Los Angeles — say in the San Fernando Valley — that has a tree canopy of 15 percent and currently experiences 50 extreme heat days per year ... what would happen if we were to increase that tree canopy by, let’s say 10 percent, and lift it to 25 percent?" de Guzman said.

In theory, by changing the land cover and incorporating more trees — as well as more heat-resistant surfaces and better-insulated housing — a five-day heat wave could be reduced to four days. 

“Los Angeles is not unique in this. Many urban centers around the country have this issue where we know that lower-income communities, which tend to be communities of color, bear a disproportionate amount of burden when it comes to environmental injustices,” de Guzman said.  

Which, in turn, translate into public health risks. 

In L.A., the three communities most at risk for heat mortality are the elderly, Hispanics and blacks. That risk increases about fivefold from the first to fifth consecutive day of extreme heat. After that, the mortality rate for Hispanic communities increases by 46 percent, and 48 percent for the elderly. 

“Even if you have air-conditioning, if you have a limited income, you are more likely to think twice about whether or not you can just bear it and not turn on the air-conditioning because, of course, you have to pay for that electricity,” she said.

L.A. currently experiences about six days of extreme heat per year. By the middle of the century, that could spike to 22 days. Travel north to San Fernando, where residents endure about two months a year of extreme heat — a figure that will only increase as time passes with no action, de Guzman said.  

This grant requires a dollar-for-dollar non-federal match in order to be received. Right now, they're about $130,000 shy, but will continue working until the match is made, she said.