Aug 9, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Cooling centers are turning into next-gen "climate resilience hubs"

Miami's climate resilience pod.
Miami's climate resilience pod. Courtesy of the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center

As cities race to amp up their heat mitigation efforts, some are replacing bare-bones cooling centers with full-service "climate resilience hubs" — offering everything from comfy A/C and phone charging to social services and emergency training.

Why it matters: While "resilience hubs" are meant for everyone and all kinds of climate disasters, they're particularly aimed at low-inc0me residents and people of color, who tend to suffer disproportionately as temperatures rise.

  • The idea is to meld the heat-relief imperative with social justice.

Driving the news: Chastened by heat waves that have often turned fatal, cities and states are starting to plan, fund and build climate resilience hubs — souped-up community centers modernized for the current heatpocalypse.

  • Miami-Dade County is at the forefront with its mobile "resilience pod" made from a 40-foot shipping container. It debuted two years ago and offers people a chilled, solar-powered place to gather, with Wi-Fi, phone charging and a suite of solutions for "food insecurity" — including fruit trees for people to plant.
  • Tempe, Arizona, has budgeted $2.3 million for EnVision Tempe, a one-stop resource center that'll have a big walk-in freezer and free ice — plus staffers who can help visitors find a job, GED classes, housing assistance, parenting programs, etc.
  • Similar initiatives are underway in Austin; Seattle; Portland, Oregon; Northern California and elsewhere.

What they're saying: "The evolution has happened pretty quickly" from cooling centers — which people didn't necessarily use because of COVID-19 and limited services — to the more expansive "climate resilience hub" model, says Kathy Baughman McLeod, director of the Atlantic Council's Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center.

  • Her group, which focuses on helping cities adapt to climate change, built Miami's resilience pod. It also has a $1.1 million U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant to scale and replicate the program across Florida.

Zoom out: Cities are appointing "chief heat officers" and "chief resilience officers," who are pushing the hub model alongside various climate-focused nonprofits.

  • The Inflation Reduction Act that passed in the Senate on Sunday sets aside $60 million for "environmental justice," which could help communities build resilience hubs.

Yes, but: There are lots of challenges, from getting people to seek shelter during a heat emergency to conflicting visions of what "resilience hubs" should be and how they should operate — and ensuring that they function as more than de facto homeless shelters.

  • Supplying water, electricity and other resources can be difficult, "especially when you consider the very real and increasing possibility of heat waves coinciding with blackouts or power failures," says Rushad Nanavatty of RMI, a clean energy nonprofit helping 10 Texas cities develop climate hubs.
  • Transportation is a big obstacle — particularly since the hubs aren't always centrally located, according to a June study by University of Alberta scholars.

One model: A Boston-based nonprofit called Communities Responding to Extreme Weather (CREW) has built a network of 109 resilience hubs in college and municipal libraries. (Here's a map.)

  • Workers at the CREW hubs distribute cooling kits and free air conditioners, mobilize neighbors to check on elderly residents, and hold education sessions to help people prepare for projected local climate impacts.
  • "We think about climate resilience through social resilience," the Rev. Vernon Walker, CREW's program director, tells Axios.
  • A resilience hub concept from another group, the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, focuses on disaster response and providing shelter.

The bottom line: As helpful as they could potentially be, most "resilience hubs" are still in the planning stages, so they're too late for this summer — yet already long overdue.

  • "Our region is turning into Riyadh, Saudi Arabia," Braden Kay, sustainability and resilience director for the City of Tempe, tells ABC 15 Arizona. "And we are not changing ... our emergency management strategies fast enough."
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