As a record-breaking heat wave settled over the Pacific Northwest in June, a climate researcher named Vivek Shandas took a drive with his 11-year-old son and began to collect data. Using a handy infrared attachment for his smartphone, he measured temperatures across Portland as they hit unprecedented triple digits. He was amazed to find that temperatures varied by up to 40 degrees Fahrenheit from the exterior of one building to another.
Shandas, a professor at Portland State University, studies the wild variations in heat that you can find within a single city block. He is the director of the Sustaining Urban Places Research (SUPR) Lab at Portland State, which has received funding from the National Science Foundation, US Forest Service, and other federal agencies to study urban heat. He’s acutely aware that the ways we build can worsen extreme heat, and he looks for interventions that help cities survive heat waves as climate change makes them more common and extreme.
The past seven years have been the hottest ever recorded, and temperatures will continue to skyrocket without far-reaching government actions to curb greenhouse gasses. While countries are still falling short on slashing pollution, they’re already forced to help communities adapt to the rapidly altering climate. Heat is a particularly deadly stressor, and far worse in metro areas that have more concrete than greenery — which, in the US, often occurs in historically marginalized brown, Black, and Indigenous communities.
Shandas spoke to Vox about small but meaningful changes in how we build cities, from planting trees to creating ivy walls to painting buildings white. A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.