Priscilla Johnson, a block captain along Marshall Street, recalls stepping off of the bus one summer afternoon, feeling the humidity taking her breath away, and the heat coming off of the ground. She knew then that heat was an issue in her community.
“When it gets hot, this area is hot,” she said.
Some relief may be in sight for Johnson and others like her who have to sweat it out through hot summers.
Philadelphia’s Beat the Heat program will continue to help households in the city cool down again this upcoming summer, thanks to a new batch of funds from William Penn Foundation delivered to the agency on April 23.
Beat the Heat, a program initially started in 2018 by the City in partnership with Drexel University and neighborhood organizations in North Philadelphia, delivers a variety of cooling services to residents during the hottest months of the year. The program has set up cooling stations around Philadelphia’s hottest neighborhoods, including their first project at the 4400 block of North Marshall Street in Hunting Park.
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, Beat the Heat staff pivoted from setting up cooling options in public spaces to delivering air conditioners and fans directly to residents last summer, according to Cheyenne Flores, the program’s executive director, based in the City’s Office of Sustainability.
“Our original plan to create a heat relief network, which was one of the opportunities identified for staying safe in heat in public space, no longer was relevant,” she said. “Instead, we decided to pivot a little bit and focus on at home cooling for folks who are homebound and also for COVID safety precautions.”
To get residents cooling where they needed most, the program hosted air conditioning unit and fan giveaways for residents in Hunting Park, handing out over 25 units and 100 fans last summer, she said.
Beat the Heat staff originally planned to spend last year establishing a Community Heat Relief Network, a network of community spaces where residents can go to escape the hot weather, such as malls or movie theaters, and supply these spaces with the needed resources to cool residents, Flores said.
“The goal is to uplift those places with resources they need to be heat resilient,” she said. “It’s kind of shorter term solutions put in place for immediate use during a heat related emergency.”
Social distancing measures connected to the COVID-19 pandemic would have made these resources less effective, though, so Beat the Heat shifted to providing direct support.
The funds from the William Penn Foundation will help the program move into other heat vulnerable blocks in Hunting Park that haven’t been served by the program yet, according to Franco Montalto, a professor in the College of Engineering at Drexel University.
Montalto led a team of partners at Drexel University last summer that helped Beat the Heat target the most needed communities in Philadelphia, teaming up with Esperanza, a nonprofit organization in the area to select the blocks the most at need.
This summer, the program will team up with Esperanza for a second time to survey communities about the implemented cooling strategies and conduct outreach to other communities to see how Beat the Heat can expand its programing across the city in future seasons, Montalto said.
“The idea would be to start the conversation there so that next year there’s the potential to go even further and maybe go into other communities,” he added.
In an effort to create affordable and effective cooling for residents on the block, program staff refurbished parts of the neighborhood by adding in cooling and shade infrastructures like sprinklers, planters, and umbrellas last summer, hiring local residents to assist with the construction and assembly of the shade structures, Montalto said.
Beat the Heat will continue to hire residents for up to six weeks this upcoming summer, he added.
That 4400 block of North Marshall Street used to have devastatingly hot summers before Beat the Heat came in, reaching higher temperatures than other parts of the city.
Montalto’s team researched the best ways to design shade structures that would be the most beneficial to the residents, making sure they weren’t solving one problem but creating another, he said.
“We didn’t want the wind to throw the umbrella across the street, breaking someone’s window,” he said. “So we ended up building these planters that essentially function as the ballast to hold the umbrellas.”
Now, the North Marshall block has around 20 sprinklers and 30 umbrella shade structures, also built with benches for the neighbors to get together.
“You get this sort of social benefit — people can sit on the bench,” Montalto said. “You get an aesthetic benefit — you’ve got perennial native prayer flower — and then you’ve got the heat benefit.”
Beat the Heat utilizes a community steering committee to figure out how best to meet neighbor’s needs. It was important to keep the community directly involved in the program in order for it to truly succeed, Flores said.
“You can’t know what a group or community or block needs unless they’re the ones telling you what they need,” she said. “It was important for us to make sure we had representation of those needs and the individuals of the neighborhood, making the actual decisions, and providing advice for the group.”
Johnson helped spread the word about Beat the Heat on her block, rallying her fellow neighbors to receive air conditioning units and fans, and even helped a few neighbors become employed by the program.
Block residents also opened up their homes to the Beat the Heat team, allowing them to use their electricity and water to support the project as cooling stations and planters were built along the block, Montalto said.
The program paid a total of $200 toward residents’ electric bills and $450 toward their water bills for letting the team use their utilities, Montalto said.
A part of Beat the Heat’s impetus was taking an intersectional approach to climate resiliency and directly involve the community members in creating solutions to the climate problem, Flores said.
“We cannot respond to climate change adequately unless we are collaborating with people that are experiencing it,” she added.
Beat the Heat is also looking to expand its program to other neighborhoods that are heat vulnerable, such as Strawberry Mansion and Cobbs Creek.
“[We’re] making sure we’re advancing and continuing to build and grow in Hunting Park but also spreading love even more,” she said.
Johnson said programs like this are needed in communities like hers.
“It was good to know that somebody wanted to invest in this block and this neighborhood,” she said. “They just wanted to help whatever way they could help to make us cooler and even beautify our block, and I appreciate that.”
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