Much Needed Self-Reflection

Urban Heat Islands are disproportionately impacting urban communities and creating drastic health consequences. The heat exerted from asphalt, sidewalks, and pavement is causing hospitalizations for heat strokes, dehydration, and most notably – severe burns. This has become a ‘trend’ all over the country and has been more prevalent in urban areas with more asphalt and roads compared to suburban and rural areas. In order to prevent this ongoing crisis and potentially save lives, local governments should redesign their pavements by repainting them with reflective coats, effectively lowering surface temperatures in the area and the risk of burns on pedestrians. 

Hotter temperatures on traditional pavement and asphalt exacerbate heat and make the surface hotter than the actual temperature. This is due to not only the materials in the pavements but also their color and lack of a ‘reflective’ coating.

Dr.Nathan Magee, a Physics Professor at The College of New Jersey, has conducted research into studying the local urban heat island effect in Trenton, New Jersey. Heat islands, according to Dr. Magee’s research, are “urban areas that have the tendency to have higher temperatures than outlying areas (areas with foliage). Most cities that contain a lot of roads and buildings have heat island effects due to the massive amount of infrastructure and less natural terrain, such as forests and rivers.”

In this research conducted by Dr. Magee and his students, it is apparent that there are three hotspots all within the vicinity of downtown and inner-city Trenton. Next to the inner city are the coal deposits which sit near other plants and factories, and a little farther from there, there are the downtown buildings with offices and companies, most notably corporate buildings with black rooftops. While these areas show spikes, the inner city of Trenton is a collective hotspot and is more centered compared to the blue areas. 

The effects of urban heat islands vary but mainly include hotter surface temperatures, more respiratory difficulties, and increased risk for heat-related illness. In particular, concrete and pavement become incredibly scalding during the summer, with surface temperatures sometimes reaching double that of the air temperature. Last June, Dr. Kevin Foster from the Arizona Burn Center warned local residents of the severity of hot pavement through a press release. “It doesn’t take much time to get a full-thickness or third-degree burn when exposed to hot pavement. because if you look at hot pavement or asphalt at two o’clock in the afternoon in direct sunlight, the temperature is usually somewhere around 170 to 180 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Because of the danger that this phenomenon poses, it affects children and more vulnerable groups in urban communities differently. 

As a long-term resident of downtown Trenton, Latifah Bentley has noticed a generational shift due to climate change. “When my kids were young, all the other kids used to run around all summer playing tag and hopscotch,’ she laments. “I asked some of the parents and they force their kids to stay inside with A/C when it’s too hot. That makes sense.”

“I definitely notice a difference when I travel for work and when I’m home. I think in the summer it’s cooler where I work (Pennington) because it’s fewer roads and more trees.”

Gloria Martin, an Elementary School Teacher from Elizabeth, also commented on the effects this has had on the youth. “During the hotter months, we have to have recess inside. The ground gets so hot, so when kids fall and scrape their knees they get burned.” 

The town of Elizabeth, New Jersey is much like Trenton regarding their shared struggles with urban heat island effects.

A proposed method for combating and mitigating this crisis is to repaint pavements and roads with ‘reflective’ coatings, rather than building them to retain heat. Dr. Hessam Azari Jafari from the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub stated in a 2020 MIT Climate Portal Journal: The so-called “cool pavement” strategy is currently practiced in a few cities, such as Los Angeles, by implementing reflective coatings and/or brighter-color materials in the pavement mixtures. These properties allow more sunlight to be reflected from a pavement’s surface, and less to be absorbed by its mass.” 

A 2017 Study from the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres has researched the effectiveness of this method. In the excerpt titled ‘Modeling the climate impacts of deploying solar reflective cool pavements in California cities,’ it states: “Widespread deployment of cool pavements reduces surface air temperatures in the urban parts of California including the Los Angeles Basin, San Diego, San Francisco Bay Area, and cities in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys. Temperature reductions of up to 0.32°C and 0.25°C are simulated at 14:00 LST for summer and winter, respectively.”

By investing in these ‘cool pavements’ and solar reflective materials, cities could combat the urban heat island crises and prevent injuries and hospitalizations across the country.

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