A practical approach to cooling an urban heat desert in Chelsea is underway

CHELSEA, Mass. — After a long winter, most New Englanders welcome the warm days of summer. However, hot weather can be a problem for many urban areas.

Many neighborhoods throughout the Boston area experience sweltering conditions that are much harsher than communities outside the urban core.

These areas are known as urban heat deserts. This means they get hotter and hold that heat longer than other areas.

Plans are now underway to make a block in Chelsea cooler. The area surrounded by Congress Avenue, Willow Street, Highland Street, and Maverick Street was found to be one of the hottest blocks in Chelsea.

“We took heat sensor data and basically found this block is hotter than other areas around it,” said Bianca Bowman, the climate justice organizer for GreenRoots, which is an environmental advocacy organization in Chelsea.

Bowman said her organization started to ask the question, “Why don’t we start implementing cooling solutions to see if this makes this area better?” That was what launched the Cool Block Project.

First, GreenRoots and the Boston University School of Public Health took temperatures in the area to establish a baseline of how temperatures could spike on hot days.

Now armed with data, they’re implementing a list of ideas to cool things down.

“We’re huge fans of this project,” said Alex Train, Chelsea’s housing and community development director.

Plans are underway to paint the roof of the Boys and Girls Club white, so less heat is absorbed.

Paved surfaces will be redone with lighter impermeable materials.

Parking lots will be transformed into parks.

More vegetation will be added around sidewalks, after about four dozen trees have already been planted.

When all these phases are complete, organizers will re-take temperature measurements to see just how effective these kinds of actions can be.

Train said they “improve air quality, reduce temperatures, aesthetically beautify the neighborhood and make them feel more welcoming to the residents who live here.”

He added that the project is extremely practical and can be implemented for a low-cost while being rooted in science at the same time.

High heat isn’t just about being uncomfortable. Over the last 30 years, extreme heat was responsible for more weather-related deaths than hurricanes, tornadoes, or blizzards.

Urban heat islands can result from a lack of green space and trees. Dark buildings and pavement can capture the sun’s heat and stay hot long after sunset.

Dense neighborhoods can experience mid-afternoon temperatures that are 15-20 degrees higher than suburban locations.

Research shows that generally speaking, the heat intensity in Boston is 7.2 degrees greater than in outlying areas.

Bowman thinks that this project could easily be replicated beyond Chelsea. “We really want to work with other municipalities and other places around the area because we believe cooling is a human right.”

Jiesal Cebeallos has lived in Chelsea for 20 years and said this tiny city just north of Boston can get very hot. She likes the idea of this project and “thinks it’s great anytime there are green spaces available for kids, for families.”

Heat stroke is the most severe health issue associated with hot weather in the short term, but heat can also aggravate pre-existing conditions like asthma, diabetes, and kidney disease.