Fending off heat waves

Published 9:02 am Friday, July 15, 2016

By Elizabeth Dunbar

MPR News/90.1 FM

Next week could bring the hottest temperatures of the summer to Minnesota.

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And heat waves are a health concern, especially in cities where buildings and pavement make things even hotter, and people don’t always have access to fans and air conditioning.

A group of researchers and urban planners from across the country met this week to discuss how to design a neighborhood in Minneapolis to make it more resilient to heat waves.

Prospect Park’s Witch’s Hat water tower above University Avenue in Minneapolis overlooks two very different parts of the neighborhood. As part of the researchers’ work through the University of Minnesota’s Urban Climate Institute, John Carmody led participants on a tour of the neighborhood this week.

“If we walked up there a block, you’d see the elementary school, Pratt, and you’d also start to see these historic, attractive houses,” he told the group, pointing out neighborhood landmarks.

But the researchers were focused on the other side of the neighborhood, across University Avenue, called Prospect North.

In one area, a backhoe dug through concrete debris. There’s a working recycling facility but a lot of old, industrial structures that are no longer in use. Three new things stand out: A light rail station, a community garden and the massive Surly Brewing Company.

University of Minnesota architecture professor Tom Fisher said those new structures provide a hint of what this part of the neighborhood might be like in the future.

“This is sort of the old economy disappearing, the 19th- and 20th-century industrial economy gone, and the 21st-century economy coming in and taking over and figuring out what kind of space and facilities we need,” he said.

A giant grain elevator towers above Fisher and the group. He said the researchers’ goal is to design the neighborhood to be resilient to a changing climate. The land around it has plenty of weeds but few trees — a concern during the summer.

Minnesota may be one of the coldest states in the country, but folks here know the Twin Cities can feel just as hot as cities in the South.

Researchers also know that temperatures within the Twin Cities’ urban core — especially Minneapolis — run 2 to 4 degrees hotter than elsewhere.

Tracy Twine is a climate scientist at the University of Minnesota who studies these urban heat islands, which are caused by multi-lane highways, buildings and parking lots.

“Those properties are absorbing radiation from the sun differently, and it really becomes the biggest effect at night, where the urban areas hold onto that heat,” Twine said.