Out West student blog

Should I Fill My Room With Plants? And Other Questions Asked in a Heat Wave

The green alley in question, located in south LA. Image credit: Caroline Spears

Caroline Spears
B.S., Atmosphere and Energy Engineering, 2017
Climate-Smart Cities Intern at The Trust for Public Land

My second day on the job, I found myself braving a summer heatwave on a concrete construction site with palm trees pulsing against a 106-degree sky. The past few days had been an intense welcome to LA – one of the every-more-frequent heat domes had settled itself across the southwestern United States, slowly baking everything underneath. As the sweltering days turned to stifling nights, my roommates and I had taken to dragging our mattresses in a semicircle around our window-box A/C unit and eating excessive amounts of ice cream. 

Fortunately, the concrete construction site wasn’t just ordinary construction – and the concrete wasn’t too ordinary either. This was a “green alley,” a community-based urban cooling and greening project, and the concrete wasn’t of the fry-an-egg-on-it variety. Instead, through light, reflective surfaces, porous surfaces, and carefully placed vines and fruit trees, the alley throws sunlight back into the air, providing a center of cool air for the surrounding community. 

As my roommates and I settled into our LA apartment, where the carpeting released little pockets of hot air every time we took a step, I came back each day with little tidbits of information from my internship in the Climate-Smart Cities division of The Trust for Public Land. For example – urban parks can be 10 degrees colder than the surrounding buildings thanks to water evaporation from plants. New apartment redecorating idea = DIY rainforest??? Another – white and “cool” roofs lower building temperatures (black roofs can get up to 50 degrees hotter). A hypothetical question: How angry would our Airbnb host be if she returned and found her roof spray painted white? 

More seriously, as temperatures get hotter these and other cooling strategies will be necessary to adapt to a warming world – especially in cities, which are already around 6 degrees warmer than surrounding areas. This is the new field of climate adaptation: hot temperatures are here, they’re rising, and they aren’t going away. In fact, hot temps cause more deaths than all other forms of weather combined. So while we work on solutions like PVs, batteries, and wind farms, it’s worth looking at what we can do to cool ourselves down in the meantime. 

As for the rest of my time in LA – well, next week’s supposed to bring the second record-breaking heat wave of the summer (yep, we’re on track to break the same record twice in one year), so I’ll get back to you when my room is full of plants.

Read more at the Out West Student Blog »

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