In a rural California region, a plan takes shape to provide shade from dangerous heat - Hindustan Times
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In a rural California region, a plan takes shape to provide shade from dangerous heat

AP |
Mar 03, 2024 08:41 AM IST

In a rural California region, a plan takes shape to provide shade from dangerous heat

MECCA, Calif. (AP) — When Limba Contreras moved to the desert community of Oasis, California, about 50 years ago, her family relied on a water cooler to keep temperatures inside their home comfortable. Other times, they sprayed each other with a hose outside.

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But when the heat topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit (about 38 Celsius), the cooler was futile, and the hose was a temporary reprieve.

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“We suffered because of the heat and because we didn't have any other resource,” said Contreras, a retired elementary school librarian.

Contreras and her family now have air conditioning, but she worries about the lack of shade in playgrounds and fields in the few parks they have.

“In the midst of extreme heat, the children can't play because there's no shade," said Contreras on Saturday in the Eastern Coachella Valley, where elected officials, community leaders and others gathered at a park for the inauguration of a shade equity master plan.

The Eastern Coachella Valley, an important agricultural area in Southern California, is a hot and arid place, with summer temperatures frequently rising above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Residents in this rural desert in Riverside County are mostly Latinos, Spanish speakers and low-income, and many live in mobile homes without air conditioning and work in fields under the sizzling sun.

But trees, green spaces and buildings that could offer refuge from the sun are sparse, and that can increase dangerous heat stress on the body.

From 2013 to 2023, heat was a contributing or underlying cause of 143 deaths in the Coachella Valley, according to the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office. They had no statistics for Eastern Coachella Valley, the area where this shade equity plan is in play. Across the United States, heat was a factor in nearly 1,960 deaths in 2023.

Every year, heat kills more people than floods, hurricanes and tornadoes combined, and experts warn that extreme heat will become more intense, frequent and lethal with climate change.

Studies have shown that shade can reduce heat stress on the human body between 25% and 35% throughout the day. Shaded areas can be 20 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than surfaces without it, according to an estimate by the EPA.

Many cities across the U.S. — including New York, Miami and Austin — have adopted climate action and resilience plans that use trees as a defense against the broiling stone and asphalt that raise temperatures in urban areas. But fewer have taken the idea to less developed regions.

“Heat is often talked about through the lens of cities, and that’s an important issue. But what was sort of being left off the table was how heat is affecting rural communities,” said V. Kelly Turner, assistant professor of urban planning and geography at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The Eastern Coachella Valley plan aims to address this issue by recommending ways and places to create more shade via policy changes, smart building choices and input from community members. The plan would cover the unincorporated communities of Mecca, Thermal, Oasis and North Shore, near the Salton Sea, California's largest lake, and not far from the desert resort city of Palm Springs.

“This area has been neglected for a long time, and it's unfortunate,” said Victor Manuel Perez, the Riverside County district supervisor who represents the communities. "You have hard-working people here that deserve better."

Bringing more trees and shade structures to parks, schools and other areas will “ultimately ensure that youth and their families have somewhere where they can get out of the heat because we are talking about 115 degrees” in July and August, he said. “It's pretty bad.”

The shade master plan is the latest effort in the U.S. to increase climate resilience in Latino and other marginalized communities, which are disproportionately exposed to extreme heat in part because they have fewer resources like air conditioning and access to green spaces.

Mariela Loera, regional policy manager for the nonprofit Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, said that low-income and communities of color are “easy to ignore,” and are often excluded from decision-making. That means they often lack basic amenities.

In the Eastern Coachella Valley, where Loera works, dilapidated homes are common, and other poor infrastructure adds to the heat burden for residents.

“It’s not just that it’s hot. It’s like it’s hot, and then there’s nowhere to go,” she said. “So having any kind of shade structure anywhere is helpful.”

The project is being financed by a $644,411 grant from the Governor's Office of Planning and Research in California, and is a collaboration between the Kounkuey Design Initiative, the Oasis Leadership Committee, the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation and the Riverside University Health System.

But the grand vision for the initiative won't come without hurdles. It's not always clear who has the authority to implement projects in unincorporated communities, and when the plan is finished, it will take more money to execute it.

It will be one of several shade plans in the world. Phoenix has one. So do Tel Aviv in Israel and Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

Turner, whose work focuses on cities adapting to hotter conditions, said she wanted to get involved in the project because she had never seen a shade master plan for a rural area.

People who work outdoors, such as farmworkers — who are overwhelmingly Latino — and those working in construction are vulnerable to heat. About 40 workers die annually because of it, but the government says the number is likely higher because of the lack of reporting.

Elidio Hernández Gómez, 59, was one of them. In 2023, the farmworker and father of two collapsed and died on an August day when temperatures in Fresno, California, peaked at around 100 degrees.

As part of the project, members of the Oasis Leadership Committee, composed of community residents, are paid to take a virtual class about heat with Turner and master's degree students in urban and regional planning at UCLA. On a recent Wednesday night, the class broke up into subgroups focused on spaces where residents experience heat: agriculture; transit; mobile homes and emergency shelters; and schools and parks.

Some committee members said they need robust shade in parks and public areas. They described trees that had collapsed after heavy rain and wind.

Silvestre Caixba Villaseca, through a translator, talked about inadequate and poor shade structures in fields.

When temperatures exceed the 100s, the low, plastic rolling structures absorb heat and don't cool, he said, and workers often seek shade in their cars or under trees.

At the end of the day, many fieldworkers return to a hot home with no air conditioning.

“None of us go to a place to cool off after work," he said.

But Villaseca also worries about his children, particularly his 6-year-old son.

On Saturday, under a cloud-dotted blue sky and before a dust storm rolled in, he spoke of the lack of shade at Silvestre Jr.'s elementary school. Every day after class, he lines up with his classmates outside waiting to be picked up.

“They are out in the direct sun,” he said. “They don't have any shade in the form of trees or structures ... it can be dangerous."

Despite the heat, Contreras, the Oasis resident and retired librarian, finds the desert beautiful. The mountains. The sunsets. The endless palms and orchards.

“It looks really pretty here. But the people here need help and need to protect themselves from the sun, the heat,” she said. “We can't change the weather. But we can change how we live. We can protect ourselves.”

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The Associated Press receives support from the Walton Family Foundation for coverage of water and environmental policy. The AP is solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s environmental coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/climate-and-environment

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