Hardly anyone uses the cooling centers. Here’s how to change it.
By now, heat waves of record-setting peak, duration and timing are awfully familiar.
One response has been to turn public spaces into cooling centers, or temperature-controlled facilities where people can cool off for free. This is one of the measures that will be needed to adapt to higher temperatures caused by climate change.
An emergency medicine spokesman in Oklahoma has said that there is no excuse for not taking advantage of cooling centers. Yet, overall, cooling centers are underutilized, even in the most oppressively hot regions.
There are many reasons for its underutilization. More positively, there are ways to overcome the obstacles.
1) Make them more enjoyable.
This is the most overlooked aspect in designing cooling centers. Yes, extreme heat is a matter of life and death. But even in difficult conditions, people trying to reach the cooling center need to feel welcome. Stigma means that homeless and low-income people may feel judged at a cooling center, or wealthy and young people may feel that such a place is not for them.
As Blythe, California resident Heather Hughes told reporters Ruben Vives and Akia Dillon Los Angeles Times, “He felt ashamed to be a homeless person inside the church. She also assumed she couldn’t bring her pitbull.”
Making cooling centers more attractive will not be easy. Part of it has to do with making them more enjoyable.
As Jake Bittle reports for Grist’s Record High newsletter in Seattle, “Perhaps the most common objection heard by city officials was that living in the cooling center seemed boring. If a government building didn’t have food, or internet access, or activities of any kind, it was hard for many people to imagine spending hours at a time there, no matter how sweltering it was outside.
It is more common for people who need a break from the heat to visit commercial locations. For example, in LA, people mainly use shopping malls or movie theaters for this purpose, not cooling centers.
So local governments might consider formalizing these types of popular places as cooling centers – where everyone is welcome and able to do basic things like charge their devices, no matter where they are. Whether you intend to buy or not. And it’s not just malls and theatres: cafes, fast food joints, gyms, buses and other places where people are already happy to spend hours could serve double purpose as cooling centres.
This may require subsidies or other incentives to private businesses, raising concerns about the growing number of people with complex needs. This will definitely require a change in mindset. But in a rapidly warming world, such changes are desperately needed.
2) Make them more abundant.
It is clear that there are not enough cooling centers for the requirement. For example, there are only 12 listed for the whole of Arkansas. A major increase in cooling centers is needed before the next summer season.
A cooling audit, in which residents have input into which areas need cooling centers most, can help ensure that cooling centers are sited in line with community needs, so that they are placed where they will be used be more likely to happen.
A similar argument has been made for community resilience centres, which would address more needs than cooling alone. As nonprofit program coordinator Joy Sanchez told the publication LAist’s Erin Stone, “While a building retrofitted with solar panels and battery storage provides physical resiliency, the space’s community building is at the core of its ability to become a resiliency center.” “
3) Make them more accessible.
In California’s Riverside County, the five to ten users of heating stations per day are usually people whose cars have broken down.
But overall, transportation – or rather the lack of transportation – is often cited as a reason for not frequenting the cooling center. In the US, very few people are within walking distance of a cooling center; And “walking distance” is a subjective measure for people with mobility problems in any case. If free transportation is provided, more people may consider moving.
One way to bring cooling centers closer to home is to virtually install them indoors. After three women died in their apartment building during a Chicago heatwave, Chicago mandated that buildings housing seniors install common cooling spaces.
Another way to bring cooling centers where people are is by making them mobile. The Red Cross has used cooling buses in Hanoi in areas where street vendors and motorcyclists congregate.
Physical distance is just one part of being able to access the cooling center. The second is to consider different needs. A study of cooling centers in New York City, about half of which were senior centers, found that 22% lacked wheelchair access. Disability access to cooling centers is an important but sometimes overlooked factor, especially as people with disabilities are more likely to have heat-related vulnerabilities.
4) Extend opening hours.
The heat does not respect human schedules. Yet to give just one example, a library in California’s San Fernando Valley closes on Fridays at noon. In a New York City study, 83% of cooling centers were listed as closed on Sundays, even during summer emergencies. Keeping cooling centers open only during normal working hours means many outdoor workers will not be able to benefit from them.
With a limited budget, the opening hours have also been limited. Heatwave forecasts usually cause cooling centers to open, which may seem reasonable. Yet restricting these features to heatwave periods alone does not address the problem of temperature rises, which may be harder for the body to adjust to than at a peak. Keeping cooling centers open for longer periods of the year can help to counter these fluctuations in temperature (as well as helping to normalize the existence of these facilities).
And during periods of sustained heat, extending opening hours to evenings would be one way of responding to the accumulated stress on the body. The heat is most dangerous when it rises at night, causing people not to recover from the peak of the day.
To return to the idea of turning more businesses into official cooling centers, 24-hour businesses may be especially valuable. Quick stints in cooling centers can benefit health, but only temporarily, so sustained periods of cooling – where people feel comfortable and entertained – are important. Staying in the eatery all night, as simple as it sounds, may be one way to protect organs during long-lasting heat.
5) Publicize them more.
I once entered the cooling corner of a public library in Kumagaya, a very hot city in Japan. The (optional) check-in book was nearly empty, and the only other person I found there was a jogger who had stopped by to use the drinking fountains, which made it a point to have the area designated as a cooling center. Didn’t do it though.
This is not an aberration. In other warming cities, including Phoenix, people routinely report not knowing about cooling centers.
Often, information is mainly available online, which may be less likely to reach older people and people living on the street. Language barriers are also an issue, although community organizations can help with translation and information sharing. These are important partners, as they have built up trust and local knowledge well in advance of any emergency.
Even online sources of information may be insufficient. Online maps of cooling centers in California and LA County were closed during some of the hottest parts of this summer. We cannot tolerate such lapses in infrastructure during emergency.
Reliance on online messaging also needs to be complemented by wider forms of communication, so that everyone is aware of the nearest cooling centre. Each community will need to decide on the combination of communication methods best suited for their disadvantaged groups, whether it be local TV news, radio billboards, fliers, or door-knocking to reach those who rarely leave their homes. .
All told, these types of adjustments are straightforward. That doesn’t mean they’ll be easy.
Cash-strapped local governments will certainly need to raise money for all these kinds of improvements. This will be challenging amid widespread cuts to public services as well as rising electricity prices. In LA in 2022, it was projected to cost $292.79 per hour to run a cooling center at a recreation and park site (but no additional cost to the library).
Yet there will be additional investment to ensure that all this work on the cooling centers is not wasted. If people aren’t actually using the cooling centers, what does that mean?
There is also an opportunity to spark more enthusiasm in the long-term transition towards affordable renewable energy and thoughtful design of the built environment, which will ultimately reduce cooling costs. For New York City, a move to heat pumps and building retrofits to more sustainable cooling systems has been recommended.
Cooling centers are far from perfect, but they are at least a known tool in the climate adaptation arsenal. What is important now is that these are handled judiciously, so that essentially preventable deaths are reduced.