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Rezoning could combat urban heat island phenomenon in Gowanus, ULI report finds

The Urban Land Institute New York (ULI NY) has released a report outlining how the anticipated rezoning of Gowanus, Brooklyn can be used to mitigate a phenomenon known as the urban heat island (UHI) effect.

UHI can have serious economic and health impacts on residents living in communities where it occurs.

It happens when structures and concrete replace natural vegetation and as cars and air conditioners convert energy to heat, releasing it into the air.

In its report, A Vision for a Greener, Healthier, Cooler Gowanus: Strategies to Mitigate Urban Heat Island Effect, the ULI notes that the extreme heat from UHI drives up energy costs and increases air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

“Offsetting the impacts of this UHI phenomenon should be a high priority during any redevelopment plan for Gowanus,” said James Lima, president of James Lima Planning + Development and chairman of a Technical Assistance Panel (TAP) set up by the ULI last April.

“In fact, Gowanus faces a series of complex challenges ranging from UHI effect to Superfund site toxicity, and poor air quality, among other public health concerns. The anticipated rezoning process presents a timely opportunity to coordinate and implement numerous important measures that can help ensure the health and vitality of Gowanus residents for years to come.”

The new report notes that Urban Heat Islands disproportionately impact environmental justice communities, which suffer the cumulative impacts of environmental burdens.

Residents in these communities often live in highly polluted areas, with significantly less tree coverage and open space, as well as a lack of access to affordable, healthy foods that leaves them more vulnerable to the effects of UHI.

Currently, extreme heat events cause more deaths in the United States than all other weather-related events combined and studies show heat-associated mortality particularly impacts low-income and environmental justice communities.

Gowanus, which was developed as an industrial area and whose canal was designated a US Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site in 2010, is more vulnerable to extreme heat than its surrounding communities in part because of its poor air and water quality, heavy traffic, older housing stock, and lack of parks and open space.

Gowanus is expected to experience increased development in the coming years due to an anticipated Gowanus rezoning in support of Mayor de Blasio’s housing plan to help accommodate the city’s growing population and address its long-standing affordable housing crisis.

According to the ULI, the UHI effect could worsen in Gowanus if higher density buildings are permitted in the area without plans to implement green infrastructure and other investments that can help promote localized cooling. ULI NY in partnership with the advocacy group, Fifth Avenue Committee (FAC) formed the 10-member Technical Assistance Panel (TAP) an identified measures to mitigate the UHI effect, including increasing vegetative coverage, undertaking a series of transit improvements,
and increasing building efficiency.

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