Cooling Season

Aug 13, 2019 by

The day after the Manhattanhenge on 42nd street, Manhattan, New York City.

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New York City has set out to protect people — and the planet — from the deadliest disaster: heat.

 on Aug 13, 2019 at 3:50 am

In the summer of 1896, a heat wave, dense and deadly, settled over New York City. In a time before air conditioners, average indoor temperatures neared 120 degrees, forcing people out of their apartments and into the streets, or to makeshift sleeping arrangements on rooftops and fire escapes. Over the course of 10 days, the spell killed around 1,500 people.

A young Teddy Roosevelt, then the city’s police chief, was shocked at the mayor’s lack of initiative in addressing the human suffering. A progressive to the core, Roosevelt believed people’s welfare in the heat was the government’s responsibility, so he took matters into his own hands. He brought a block of ice to the Lower East Side precinct, where he shaved off chunks for the city’s poor immigrants to help them cool off. It was a simple idea with an ambitious heart that potentially saved lives.

New York has a lengthy history of debate over the city’s — and, by proxy, landlords’ — responsibility for providing residents with shelter from the elements. These clashes are in part a symptom of big-city living, but they are also symbolic of a social contract unique to New York. In 1957 — a time when heat waves were rare, and the city was more concerned with keeping New Yorkers warm in the winter — the Board of Health approved a regulation mandating that all tenants have heat from October 1 through May 31 of every year. Any time the outdoor temperature dipped below 55 degrees, the rule said, landlords had to maintain an indoor temperature of at least 65 degrees.

And the city meant it. The New York Times archive tells a protracted story of the city’s efforts to hold landlords accountable for their tenants’ wellbeing. In 1957, a Park Avenue landlord was jailed for five days for not providing adequate heat to his tenants (the rent was a pricey $480 per month!). In 1960, a citywide crackdown on landlords who failed to install central heating threatened a $1,000 fine, a stint in jail up to one year, or both. With the declaration of Heating Season, New Yorkers would stay warm in the winter.

In 1975, the city went one step further, passing a law known as the Warranty of Habitability, declaring that every citizen has a right to safe and livable housing. Property owners who failed to meet these basic standards faced serious consequences.

But rising temperatures and more frequent heat waves have created a new challenge: keeping residents safe inside buildings that were built before the world started to warm, back when the main element people needed protection from was the biting chill of a winter storm.

Unlike the drama of a visible weather event, like a horizon roiling with thunderheads, heat is often misunderstood as uncomfortable but harmless. In fact, it’s the opposite. On average, heat kills more people in the United States each year than any other natural disaster. In New York City, around 120 people die from heat exposure annually. Eighty percent of them perish in their homes.

The buildings here are old — around 75 percent predate the ’60s — and built with materials that trap heat. The romantic brick of a West Village brownstone or the concrete slabs of a Midtown sidewalk grow saturated with heat in the summer, making it difficult for New Yorkers, many of whom are pedestrian by necessity, to avoid the steamy temperatures both indoors and out.

The problem is made worse by a geographic phenomenon called the “urban heat island effect,” which raises temperatures anywhere between 1 and 5 degrees higher than the surrounding, more rural areas. And climate change is turning up the heat even further. If our planet reaches the 3-degree warming threshold, which is possible by the end of this century if policies don’t improve, Yale Environment 360 estimates that the number of heat-related deaths in New York City could climb to 5,800 annually in especially hot years.

Heat poses a paradox for cities, which, by 2050, will house 70% of the world’s population: While it is widely accepted that dense, urban development is one feasible solution to address climate change, these same dense urban spaces transform into death traps during extreme heat events, or, what has essentially become summer. Still, recent progress in New York suggests that the inverse might also be true: By retrofitting cities to combat climate change, urban leaders might also be able to better care for the residents most exposed to rising temperatures.

People sleep at the cool marble-floor of the City Hall during a heatwave.
People sleep at the cool marble-floor of the City Hall during a heatwave. Philipp Kester / Getty Images

Buildings and people — they’re what make New York New York. The buildings here create their own geography, forming peaks and canyons, the skyline from afar a glassy and geometric mountain range. They’ve starred in movies and been traversed by wire. Symbolism aside, the buildings are here for one thing — the protection of the people within them. That’s what the law has mandated. But a building’s obligations are changing.

In April of this year, the New York City Council passed a package of seven bills called the Climate Mobilization Act, with the goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050. The new law has been described as “aggressive,” “lofty,” and “unprecedented,” and it is. It’s the city’s Green New Deal, designed to keep up with the goals of the Paris Accord, erasing the climate impacts of a hive of 8.6 million people. In many ways it’s as bold and demanding as all the New Yorkers who helped pass it.

A large part of the law is aimed at buildings, which are leaky and inefficient and accountable for nearly 70 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. “What we’re starting to understand is … if our shelter is inefficient, it’s creating greenhouse gases that are creating climate change and that’s changing weather patterns, it’s changing heat, causing floods,” John Mandyck, the CEO of the Urban Green Council, a nonprofit that played a big role in passing the new climate legislation, explained to me over the phone. “We’re starting to understand that shelter not only impacts what happens inside, it also impacts what happens outside.”

While the role of buildings in New York has long been that of protectors of the people, the Climate Mobilization Act demands that they become something entirely new: protectors of the planet.

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