Aug 15, 2023 - Climate

Flooding, heat, trash in San Antonio alleys target of city proposal

A green alley in Richmond, Virginia. Photo: City of San Antonio Office of the City Council

We've all seen it: That one alleyway we pass by filled with overgrown weeds and trash.

Driving the news: District 5 Councilmember Teri Castillo wants to give San Antonio alleys a makeover to clean up sore sights while also creating more environmentally friendly surfaces that can reduce temperatures.

Why it matters: Two-thirds of San Antonio residents live where the "urban heat island" effect raises temperatures by 8 degrees or more, per an analysis by nonprofit climate research group Climate Central.

  • Heat islands — where heat is trapped by heat-absorbing surfaces like concrete and asphalt — can make cities less livable and increase the risk of heat-related health complications, Axios' Alex Fitzpatrick reports.

Between the lines: Low-income neighborhoods tend to be hotter than wealthier ones.

  • Heat islands can also lead to increased energy usage and costs as residents use air conditioning to keep cool.

Details: The proposed pilot program would redo alleyways with:

  • Reflective materials and native plants to reduce the heat island effect
  • Permeable paving or rain gardens to address stormwater runoff
  • Light fixtures that would minimize light pollution
  • A sense of place, by adding art, signage or other amenities residents want.

Of note: Castillo wants to focus the program in neighborhoods where the heat island effect is most profound and that have alleys in the worst condition.

The big picture: More than 4,100 alleys across San Antonio do not receive trash pickup services, and maintenance responsibility falls on property owners. These alleys often feature overgrown vegetation and breaks in the pavement that can result in water buildup and drainage issues.

  • Such spots can also be a magnet for illegal dumping and other safety concerns, Castillo says.

What they're saying: Castillo's office has received complaints from residents about alleyways, but the city has limited resources to address concerns, she tells Axios.

  • "We need to take every opportunity we can to be innovative with infrastructure but also with addressing the heat island effect," Castillo says.

Zoom out: Chicago launched a green alley program in 2001, and has since renovated more than 300. The city's handbook offers tips for other cities.

Meanwhile, San Antonio this summer began installing "cool pavement," a water-based asphalt treatment that absorbs less heat, on city streets to help reduce temperature spikes.

Reality check: Adaptation and mitigation can only do so much in the face of triple-digit temperatures lasting for days on end.

  • "Changes to the built environment can cool these neighborhoods, but until global temperatures stop rising, city residents will face increasingly steeper challenges to stay safe during periods of extreme heat," Climate Central senior data analyst Jennifer Brady said in a statement.

What's next: Castillo wants the city to include funding for the green alleyways program in the next budget, which the City Council will vote on in September.

  • The proposed budget does not include money for the pilot program, but includes $1.3 million to begin a three-year maintenance schedule for non-service alleys.

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