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Arizona has experience planning for extreme heat. New university partnership shares that knowledge

Two Arizona universities will be part of a new organization that aims to help communities across the country create policies and take actions to manage and mitigate extreme heat. The Center for Heat Resilient Communities is a partnership between UCLA, the University of Arizona and Arizona State University, and will be funded by a more than $2 million federal grant.

Ladd Keith is an assistant professor of planning at the UA and faculty research associate at the Udall Center there; he’s also one of the co-leads of the new center. He joins The Show to talk more about it, starting with whether it's more a matter of knowledge or resources, in terms of cities being able to take the steps they need to take to deal with extreme heat.

Full conversation

LADD KEITH: Yeah, so the idea that we should even be planning for heat is still fairly new compared to other hazards, right? And so this idea of heat governance is still fairly new in the United States, and, indeed, in governments across the world. But we've seen a lot of action in select places, and so of course, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Miami-Dade County, now have dedicated chief heat officer type positions. And here in Arizona, we also have a dedicated chief heat officer at the state level. But we still don't see this level of action taking place in the 19,000 other communities across the United States, and so the idea here is really to take those lessons learned about research being conducted on what how we should address heat and really try to deploy that into the rest of the United States, whether communities are large, medium, small, kind of across all geographies and all climate types.

MARK BRODIE: How do you try to adapt something, for example, that might work well in Phoenix or Tucson, to a, a smaller community? Or something, you know, scale up something that does work in a smaller community to a bigger city like LA or Phoenix? 

KEITH: Yeah, that's a great question. I think we've seen some of the lessons learned are universal, and so coordination is something that's needed, regardless of whether you're a large city, a medium city or a small city, right? So those types of actions are fairly universal and work well, regardless of the city size. Some others, like the actual strategies deployed to cool cities, may be much more geographically specific, right? And so kind of to that end, although the center is hosted at UCLA with the partnership between the University of Arizona and Arizona State University, we have a very wide network of collaborators, practitioners and faculty across the country that are contributing to kind of the framework that we're developing. And so really drawing on knowledge across the nation of what works 

BRODIE: I'm curious about what you mentioned, in terms of coordination, because when you talk to some of the, you know, chief heat officers and other people who who do what you do, coordination seems to be a real key between different levels of government, between different entities, different stakeholder groups, that kind of thing.

KEITH: Yeah, absolutely, and I think we've seen that level of coordination really increase here in Arizona, specifically after the governor declared the heat emergency and then adopted the heat action plan at the state level, and then again, with that appointment of our chief heat officer. We've seen here in southern Arizona, we now have a joint heat action team that's meeting weekly, and kind of coordination between a lot of jurisdictions that had never formally met before preparing for heat. And so I think those types of lessons that we've learned in Arizona, of course, Maricopa County has been very well organized for many years on heat, with cooling center response and such, but taking those lessons again, and really making sure that other communities don't have to go through the same long learning process that we did, that they can kind of get off at a really good jumping point, because of course, the heat is increasing faster than our resources are increasing to deal with it.

BRODIE: So, do you see your role as more of sort of a clearinghouse kind of thing where, you know, let's say, you know, a small community in some other state has questions or wants to know, you know, what, what some of the best practices are, instead of contacting Phoenix and Tucson and the state health department here, for example, they can contact you and you just have all that information.

KEITH: Yeah, that's absolutely the goal in so many federally funded research programs that we run at the U of A and, you know, other universities run, are more focused on original research. I would say this center is exactly that. It's trying to translate the research that's already been conducted, and, again, gathering those best practices and really getting it in the hands of communities that that they can act on it. So that's really the role of the center.

BRODIE: So, what are some of those best practices that have been identified so far that you would imagine pretty much anybody who who contacts you, you'll say, 'you should probably do this''

KEITH: Yeah, that's a great question. So I think, again, coordination is one of the very first things that we recommend that communities do. So, just getting all of the folks in the room that are already probably working on heat in different ways, but may have different metrics that they're using, may have different actions that they're focused on and may have different goals that they're looking at. And so getting them really to speak together for the first time is really critical. But then once you dive down deeper past that initial coordination, right, it's looking at the actions that you take to prepare for heat season. So things like coordinating that cooling center relief network perhaps, or how you would respond to a record breaking heatwave, if that were to happen with the emergency management folks. And then also looking at those long term, urban planning type strategies to really reduce the urban heat island effect, and, again, those could be things related to increased vegetation, use of more cool surfaces, like cool pavement or cool roofs. But, again, those will really vary across the country, and so, you know, that's where we'll call on a lot of local expertise to really understand what's best for each location.

BRODIE: Well, so, you mentioned that this center will focus maybe a little bit less than a typical university enterprise on original research. But I'm wondering if there is still research ongoing in terms of, you know, we touched on the resources issue, you know, things like cooling centers, cool pavement, things like that, that all obviously cost money, and I would imagine there are some communities who would like to do some of those things, but maybe just can't afford it. I'm wondering if there is research going on to, you know, try to help with some of the maybe low cost mitigation strategies that could still be pretty effective, but maybe won't cost as much as you know, for example, opening a 24 hour cooling center or something like that.

KEITH: Yeah, absolutely. We have several other research programs that are doing exactly that, trying to answer some of those questions. So of course, the NOAA-funded climate assessment for the southwest here at the U of A that serves Arizona and New Mexico. We also have our BRACE-funded program that's funded by CDC, BRACE stands for "building resilience against climate effects," where we partner really closely with the Arizona Department of Health Services, and a number of other grants, right? So I think a lot of that work will continue to be ongoing. But again, this center is really looking at how we can take a lot of that research that's occurring in other places and translate that into action for local communities.

BRODIE: So, given the fact that, at least here in the Phoenix area, we are already sort of settled into the triple digits, how quickly will you guys be able to get up and running for this summer to help other communities that might be looking to get help with heat?

KEITH: Yeah, that's a great question. And so it's a two part answer. One is that we already have a wealth of resources available through the universities that are co-hosting this new center, as well as all of the collaborators that we're working with. And we're going to try to get those on to heat.gov as quickly as possible. So, that's part one of the answer. The second part is that we'll be launching a call for communities interested in being supported by the center to be part of our first cohort of about 30, and we'll be launching that fairly quickly and hoping to work with those communities as fast as possible.

BRODIE: Sure. All right. That is Ladd Keith with the University of Arizona also one of the co-leads on the new Center for Heat Resilient Communities. Ladd, nice to talk to you as always, thank you.

KEITH: Yeah, thank you so much.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.