Washington DC: Targeting Urban Heat Islands

This case study discusses how Washington DC is preparing for the impacts of climate change including sea-level rise, increasing flood risks, and heat waves. The case study explores how District agencies integrated considerations of climate change when developing the city's Sustainable DC plan, which was developed through an interagency working group.  This effort spurred the development of a city-wide vulnerability assessment and adaptation plan.  The case study also explores the District’s efforts to reduce urban heat islands by making grants to pilot the use of cool roofs, implementing the Smart Roof Initiative to retrofit District-owned buildings, and adopting of a new Green Building Code.

Resilient DC is assessing and building community resilience in anticipation of natural or man-made disasters, including severe heat waves. The District has many populations that are particularly vulnerable to heat, including low-income communities of color, the homeless, and very young and elderly residents.

Resilient DC is engaging faith-based groups, community groups, the media, health-care organizations, and others to produce strategies to increase community resilience across all of these sectors. By engaging so strongly with communities who are all too often left out of planning processes and climate discussions, the DC government seeks to increase the capacity of those communities to adapt and to be stronger even in non-disaster times.

The District was selected as a target city for a University of Michigan project to create a heat vulnerability map, which uses Geographic Information System (GIS) to overlay physical and demographic data and identify the areas of greatest heat vulnerability. With this vulnerability map, DDOE and other agencies can prioritize urban heat interventions, both in emergency response (e.g., ensuring that cooling centers are located where people are most likely to need them) and in the built environment (e.g., strategically choosing neighborhoods or even blocks for tree planting, cool roof initiatives, and cool pavement pilots).


This report is part of a series of six case studies that explore how subnational actors (municipalities, states, and special administrative regions) in the United States and China are building resilience to natural hazards, extreme weather, and climate change. These case studies examine efforts to adapt to impacts in three U.S. and three Chinese jurisdictions, including efforts to prepare for: (i) increasing coastal flooding due to more frequent and intense coastal storms and rising sea levels in coastal Louisiana and Shanghai; (ii) increasing water scarcity in Austin, TX, and Beijing; and (iii) increasing heat waves and urban heat islands in Washington, DC, and Hong Kong. These case studies are oriented toward building resilience to the weather and climate related impacts being experienced in each jurisdictions; these actions are not always explicitly linked to climate change, and we do not evaluate the effectiveness or appropriateness of the specific activities undertaken by each jurisdiction. These case studies were supported by a grant from the Georgetown Environment Initiative and the MacArthur Foundation. Georgetown Climate Center collaborated with Professor Joanna Lewis at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service on this interdisciplinary.

Publication Date: August 2015

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