Photo Credits: Marc-Olivier Jodoin on Unsplash.

Originally posted on the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness website. 

As Montréal cools down from a boiling weekend during which Environment Canada warned of humidex values reaching a high of 45 degrees, the stifling weather reminds us of the scorching heatwave that hit the city last year. From June 30th to July 5th 2018, soaring temperatures that felt like 40°C blistered the island. The extreme heat caused 66 mortalities over 6 days in Montréal, which is shockingly only slightly lower than the number of mortalities caused by homicide in the city in the entire year of 2017. [1]

Rising heat affects a wider scope than just Montréal. In the three month period from May to July of 2018, 22% of the Northern Hemisphere experienced extreme heat due to anthropogenic climate change. [2] The number of days of extreme heat increase each year and they are occurring in the most populated areas. [3] With this in mind, cities across the globe, including Montréal, should brace themselves for more frequent and severe heat waves.

The heat-related mortalities were not spread evenly throughout Montréal. Residents who were living in areas with a higher urban heat island effect were disproportionately harmed. The urban heat island effect is a phenomenon where certain urban areas are significantly hotter than their rural surroundings due to consequences of urbanization. [4] During heat waves, areas already suffering from the urban heat island effect are impacted more severely than cooler areas because of the existing temperature difference.

Fortunately, it is possible to mitigate the urban heat island effect through informed policymaking and city planning. Building more green spaces to increase evaporative cooling, painting roofs white, and implementing reflective pavement to reflect sunlight back into space are effective measures for cooling down urban heat islands in Montréal. [5] Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie, a lower income neighbourhood and a heat island within Montréal, has already taken measures to cool down the area. In April 2011, the borough council revised their zoning bylaws to require new and replaced roofs to be white, green (vegetative), or highly reflective and to require that all new parking lots of a certain size be at least 15 percent vegetation. [6] More recently, on a provincial scale, Quebec’s Public Health Institute has called for $170 million for creating green spaces to cool down the “major public health problem” of heat islands after last year’s heat wave. [7]

On the occasion that this funding is granted, the provincial government should take care to allocate funds equitably as some residents are more burdened by the heat island effect, and by extension heat waves, than others. Namely, in Montréal the burden of the urban heat island effect falls inequitably on the lower income population. Furthermore, individuals who are over 65 years old, those who live alone, and those suffering from chronic diseases are also disproportionately affected by heatwaves. Eric Klinenberg, author of Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago and NYU professor, states in an interview with the University of Chicago Press that extreme weather events speed up and make “visible the hazardous social conditions that are always present but difficult to perceive.” [8]  Residents who live in lower income neighbourhoods have fewer resources to spend on cooling methods at home and have less access to cooling green spaces. Lower income neighbourhoods also tend to suffer from the urban heat island effect, which is associated with less cooling vegetation among other consequences of urbanization. [9] Individuals who are older and/or experience chronic ailments have less mobility and therefore can not reach green spaces and air-conditioned public spaces. Residents who live alone do not have anyone to rely on for immediate help when symptoms of heat-related illnesses surface.

When factors such as income level, age group, health, and social isolation overlap, the risk of morbidity and mortality from heat increases exponentially. As seen this past summer, the social isolation experienced daily by older adults and those who are chronically ill was deadly. When the heatwave hit, limited mobility and lack of connections sequestered these individuals in their homes with no way to reach relief from the rising temperatures. Lack of resources due to low income compounded with these factors as well, ultimately resulted in preventable heat-related morbidities and mortalities. In order to justly combat the dangers of the urban heat island effect both during extreme heat events and in daily life, special care must be taken to focus on those most prone to risk.

In response to the heat crisis, the City of Montréal is currently proposing measures to improve emergency procedures specifically targeting those most affected by extreme heat. In the meantime, what can we as residents do? In the final bouts when extreme heat hits, we as a community must rally around the people who need our help most. We must proactively connect with those that have no one to reach out to themselves. You can save a life by being a good neighbour. Knock on your neighbour’s door to check if they want a cold beverage or any other help. Call up the person across the street to ask if they need a ride to an air-conditioned public space. If you check up on just one neighbour during extreme heat events, you form a connection that could potentially save a life. The collective bonds formed by simple neighbourly actions like these will forge a community that leaves no one behind to undertake the heat alone. If you would like to read more about the intersection of the environment and social equity, or to check your neighbourhood’s susceptibility to the urban heat island effect, read more on Data-Driven Lab’s Urban Environment and Social Inclusion Index.