“I have to be careful going up hills, because if I stop, the whole thing will tip over,” Nick Rajkovich explains the physics of navigating 40 pounds of air temperature monitors, a camera and a complex steel frame lashed to his black, Surly cargo bike.
Studious and bespectacled, Rajkovich cracks a smile at the memory of pedaling his “weather bicycle” up the Rocky River Reservation’s asphalt and the Towpath’s ash-cinder trails. Despite the calculated risk to himself, he did it for a few weeks in the summer of 2012—all in the service of science.
The Brecksville native was pushing for answers to how much urban heat island effect Northeast Ohioans can withstand. He built his bike to measure the change in temperature from rural to urban areas of Cuyahoga County. An assistant professor in Architecture and Planning at The State University of New York, Rajkovich’s field work happened to correspond with the hottest summer on record.
He recorded a spike of 65 degrees Fahrenheit from where the Towpath Trail is cinder and surrounded by trees to where it runs on asphalt behind Steelyard Commons.
What makes that a cause for concern, says Rajkovich, is exposure to heat—amplified by hard surfaces—is more fatal than all of the natural disasters splashed across the Weather Channel combined, he says. For instance, summer 1995 when 770 Chicagoans perished in a ten-day heat wave.
“If you have a steel mill, the temperature is felt downwind,” he noted. “We found areas downwind from a forest were about 0.5 degrees cooler.”
He set up weather stations around Cuyahoga County, including the shore of Lake Erie, where it recorded temperatures 0.75 degrees cooler than the rest of the metro area.
Bottom line: Mortality jumps 20% on days above 90 degrees F. These days are especially deadly for elderly, lower-income residents of buildings without air conditioning and where shade trees once stood. A 2014 tree canopy assessment conducted by Cuyahoga County found that Cleveland is down to an average of 18% tree cover.
>90 degree days have gone up by 4 in Cuyahoga since 1956, according to a 2012 analysis of climate change in the Great Lakes region. The Great Lakes Integrated Sciences + Assessments (GLISA), conducted by researchers at the Michigan Office of the State Climatologist, found that high heat days will increase by 20 to 30 (by 2070).
“It is crucial to understand...the impact is not distributed proportionately,” GLISA wrote. “Minorities living in areas characterized by high poverty rates, aging infrastructure, air pollution, degraded urban spaces, lack of access to heath care and basic services are more vulnerable.”
In fact, says Rajkovich, African-Americans living in Cuyahoga County are exposed to 20% higher risk.
In response, Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, Inc., a non-profit community development group, applied for a climate resiliency grant from the Detroit-based Kresge Foundation. CNP recently heard back that Cleveland was selected to receive $600,000 over three years to mitigate climate impacts in five neighborhoods where the social and environmental conditions are worst: Glenville, Slavic Village, Detroit-Shoreway, Cedar and Central. Cleveland is the sole inland city selected; the other recipients are on the east and west coasts.
It is important to recognize, says Terry Schwarz, Executive Director of the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, who was hired by CNP to help with the Kresge grant, that Cleveland isn’t necessarily at greater risk of heat-related mortality than Chicago, Detroit, or other ‘transitional’ cities with a lot of pavement and a 35% of the population, including many seniors, living in poverty.
“We have isolated people and depleted tree canopy—and we continue to take down trees—and that is something we have known,” Schwarz said. “Kresge selected Cleveland because we’re trying to make the case that climate change is not just a Sun Belt issue. There are key challenges in Cleveland and the rust belt.”
Rajkovich estimates it will take the equivalent of 29 acres of tree cover to lower temperatures by 2 degrees.
Planting trees and reducing impervious pavement through the provision of more park space and gardens is one possible response. Kresge also expects improved energy efficiency, particularly, in older homes in Cleveland and inner ring suburbs, says Schwarz. That could mean providing more insulation, more white, reflective roofs, more native landscaping, re-introducing streams that were buried, and other “cool city” strategies (see their emerging strategies here).
What the new infusion of funding could do is help integrate and amplify Cleveland’s climate resiliency efforts which are notably grassroots. Encouraged by the Cleveland Office of Sustainability and non-profit partners, like the CDCs, new funding could raise the prospects of small-scale, neighborhood-led responses to climate change. They include the Cleveland Climate Action Fund, which provides seed funding, and the Cleveland Climate Action Ambassadors, who are more likely to reach their neighbors with climate change messages, and provide the spark for Clevelanders to bring local ideas to life.
“Everybody loves trees and green space,” concludes Rajkovich, “but here’s an opportunity to reduce illness and fatalities. That’s powerful.”