This story originally appeared on CityLab and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
In a coastal city, it’s easy to assume the greatest climate threat comes from the rising ocean. But in Long Beach, California, the biggest danger is not the sea, but the sun.
“We have to deal with sea-level rise,” Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia said. “But it’s not our biggest challenge. The increase in temperature is the real concern right now. It’s top of our list.”
Over the past few years, Long Beach has broken a slew of temperature records. In May 2015, the city reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature last recorded in 1967; a 93-degree day in November 2016 broke a 1996 record. Last month, the mercury hit 104 degrees, surpassing 1965’s 99-degree high. By 2050, average temperatures in Long Beach are expected to increase between 2.3 and 2.7 degrees.
These higher temperatures are especially prevalent in the city’s urban heat islands, which tend to have a lot of cement and fewer parks or trees—and are often concentrated in low-income communities, Garcia said.
Garcia, who was born in Peru, became mayor of Long Beach in 2014 at the age of 36. In his 2015 State of the City address, he declared his intention to make Long Beach a “climate-resilient city.” That same year, he commissioned the Aquarium of the Pacific to conduct an assessment of the city’s vulnerabilities and recommend potential solutions. Its report singled out the young, poor, and elderly among the city’s 470,000 people as most vulnerable to the heat.
By 2050, average temperatures in Long Beach are expected to increase between 2.3 and 2.7 degrees.
“People always say, ‘Climate change is going to affect my kids,’ but it’s older folks too,” Garcia said. “Young people have grown up with it—it’s one of our biggest threats. But the elderly don’t view it as so pressing.”
Emily Yam, the science interpretation manager at the aquarium and a co-author of the report, agreed that being young, elderly, or living in a low-income area makes people more vulnerable to heat. “But we also find other factors may increase those populations’ vulnerability,” she said, “such as access to transport and lack of air conditioning.” In this coastal community, many people don’t have air conditioning. The city operates cooling centers in public facilities on hot days.
City Hall has a plan to create more parks and plant 10,000 trees in low-income areas of town to combat the heat. One study carried out at a local elementary school, and another at an office complex, showed that tree shade could reduce temperatures by as much as 3 degrees.
But this raises another issue. Creating more green spaces means a greater need for irrigation, and Long Beach has a water problem.
Located in a semi-arid region with limited natural freshwater supplies, Long Beach relies on external water reserves and, despite record-breaking rainfalls in January 2017, water use prohibitions are still in effect. In an average year, the Long Beach Water Department (LBWD) obtains 40 percent of its water from imported sources and 53 percent from groundwater—which is also partially dependent upon imported sources for recharge. Recycled water accounts for just 7 percent of the city’s water supply.
The aquarium’s climate-resilience report noted that plans to increase recycled water have “not yet been realized,” and suggested that imported supplies will become less reliable by 2050, even as demand increases as a result of warmer summers.
Mitigating heat through urban design
Since creating new green spaces may entail water problems, Garcia has turned to infrastructure and planning as another long-term strategy.
“We’re rethinking how to design a community. We’re introducing bike lanes and new public transit to decrease dependency on cars, which will help mitigate the temperature rise,” he said.
Garcia has long championed bike lanes. A flurry of them were built before his election as mayor, but the network was inconvenient: Thanks to a little-known municipal law, cyclists had to register bikes at a local fire station and faced fines of up to $400 if they failed to do so. Garcia, then a city councilman, introduced a measure to eliminate the registration in 2011 and it was eventually scrapped.
However, when Long Beach looked at expanding bike lanes in 2014, there was a backlash. “Every time you remove a car lane, people are concerned about their access getting to and from somewhere,” the mayor said.
But the city plowed ahead with plans to implement a road diet—removing one lane of car traffic in each direction between 7th Street and Orange Avenue and adding new bike lanes.
It also introduced a bike share in March 2016, using a $2.3 million grant awarded by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which means the bike share operates without cost to Long Beach residents.
Michael Bohn, the design director at…