It is anticipated that Philadelphia will continue to get both wetter and hotter in the decades ahead (a trend that we have already been experiencing).

Flooding & Sea Level Rise

The rate of sea level rise is expected to increase, amplifying flooding and leading to increased salinity of the surrounding waters. Extreme events such as heat waves, intense rain and/or snowstorms, and tropical storms and hurricanes are expected to become more frequent and more severe. According to a report produced by Philadelphia’s Office of Sustainability in 2015:

Although Philadelphia is 90 miles inland from the mouth of the Delaware Bay, higher sea levels will raise water levels in the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers. Higher baseline river levels would not only permanently inundate parts of Philadelphia but also increase the depth and extent of flooding in and around the city from storm surges.

In the future, even in those periods when yearly rainfall levels remain relatively stable, that rain is likely to fall in fewer, heavier storms rather than across many smaller ones. Since warm air holds more moisture than cold air, we can expect to see longer periods between rains (because the moisture is being held in the atmosphere); then when that water finally falls, it’s far more likely to be torrential. These heavy precipitation events, in the form of torrential rainfall, will frequently exceed the capacity of the city’s sewer infrastructure (as much of Philadelphia utilizes a combined sewer/storm water system), sending untreated sewage into the waterways and streets, degrading both water quality and public health.

Climbing Temperatures

By the end of the 21st century, climate projections suggest that Philadelphia may experience four to ten times as many days above 95 degrees annually, and as many as sixteen days a year above 100 degrees. According to the report Growing Stronger: Toward a Climate-Ready Philadelphia:

More of these hot days may arrive together as heat waves, increasing the risk of community residents experiencing heat-related health problems such as dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke.

And as we are seeing over and over, across the globe, these higher temperatures and rising sea levels are often arriving far more quickly than the predictions have accounted for.

Hot weather also encourages the formation of ground-level ozone, which reduces air quality and poses risks to individuals with respiratory conditions such as asthma. It increases the incidence of a variety of diseases like cardiovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, and other respiratory diseases. “In 2010, nearly a quarter of children in Philadelphia County had asthma, among the highest rates in the nation.”

Higher temperatures contribute to degraded source water quality, as they encourage intensified bacterial growth. Philadelphia’s drinking water is currently chemically disinfected in order to achieve healthy human potability and in the summers, the water department is regularly required to add more disinfectant (in the form of chlorimine treatment) due to greater levels of contamination. The hotter the temperatures become, the more chemical treatment will be required of the tap water, with potentially detrimental consequences on residents’ health.

And while all of the statistics above focus on Philadelphia as if it were a single, unified and homogenous region, we know that not all of the city’s residents or residential areas are currently or will be equally vulnerable to the most severe impacts of these conditions. When we look at existing heat index maps of the city, those neighborhoods that are poorer and less resourced (often along highly racialized lines), predictably have less trees, fewer public parks, and reduced access to green space. These very same neighborhoods also tend to have fewer artificially cooled, indoor spaces (or what the city refers to as “cooling stations” and which might include facilities such as libraries, gyms, rec centers, etc.) that the broader public can access free of charge.

This is not a new problem, but it is an escalating one. According to a report from the Center for Disease Control that is now more than a decade old, “extreme heat is responsible for more deaths in Pennsylvania than all other natural disasters combined, killing an average of 50 people per year between 1997 and 2004.” It is certain that those numbers have only climbed, not declined, since the CDC study was completed, given that recent years have been among the hottest ever recorded.

How Communities Can Respond

When it comes to formulating a response to these anticipated changes, we know that we will need to improve the capacity of our neighborhoods to withstand such onslaughts and, just as critically, that we can’t depend or wait upon the national or state government to equip us to do so. Indeed, the few federal departments that are supposedly dedicated to such matters are notoriously underfunded, understaffed, and even outright delegitimized at the highest levels. We also know that the solution cannot lie solely in the private installation of more individual, residential air conditioning units (which while at times essential, also contribute to intensifying over the long-term the very problem that they solve in the short-term).

Instead, we need affordable, community-led and publicly owned solutions to improve collective qualities of life and health alike, curtailing preventable human misery and fatalities. We need to not only make such conditions survivable, but to reduce the root factors and forces that are leading to them in the first place.

We know that this will require resources, relationship-building, ingenuity, and experimentation. It will involve mapping the already existing, multi-generational skill sets, strengths, and networks of solidarity and interconnection that exist in our neighborhoods, as well as the devastating histories of oppression, economic disinvestment, and intentional disenfranchisement these same neighborhoods have endured. We are excited and humbled to participate in this work in the future.

One example of a Philadelphia-based project that is currently attempting to address conditions of extreme heat is located in Hunting Park in North Philadelphia. Hunting Park has a large population of children alongside one of the highest rates of asthma in the city. This combination places the neighborhood’s population at a high risk for dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heatstroke. The Beat the Heat pilot project began in the summer of 2018 as a collaboration between City agencies and Hunting Park organizations, residents, and community groups. The project seeks to understand how residents of Hunting Park are coping with extreme heat, the tools they need to better cope, and the changes they would like to see in their community to make it cooler in the present and future.

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