Boston-Area Communities Work Together to Beat the Heat

August 30, 2023 | 3:00 pm
from below, a five-pointed star shape is made up from a diverse group of five people extending two fingers each. the image suggests unity.fauxels/Pexels
Leila Heidari

We are halfway through this year’s Danger Season—the period between May and October when climate change makes extreme weather events more likely—and the unprecedented ferocity and scale of extreme weather have been making headlines and impacting our lives. In the Northeast, we have seen the haze and breathed air heavy with the smoke from Canadian wildfires. We have witnessed destruction by rising floodwaters from heavy rains. It may be more challenging, however, to perceive what is often called an “invisible hazard” or the “silent killer” as the deadliest weather event: extreme heat.  

What images come to mind with the questions: how do you see heat? How does heat affect you? Your family, and your community? What helps you cope with heat? What makes your home and neighborhood hotter or cooler than other homes and neighborhoods?  

These are the questions that residents of Chelsea and East Boston, MA asked and addressed through a Photovoice project in the summer of 2021. Photovoice is an action-oriented research method of storytelling through photography, and centers participants as co-researchers.  These communities are among the hottest in the Boston metropolitan area, categorized as urban heat islands. These areas experience higher temperatures relative to surrounding areas because they have a denser concentration of heat-trapping surfaces and limited green spaces that offer cooling benefits. Wicked Hot Mystic, a community-based heat mapping project, collected air temperature data during a 2021 heat wave and found that Chelsea and East Boston were two of the six hottest communities, reaching temperatures up to 10°F hotter than the coolest areas in the 76-square-mile Mystic River watershed.  

A collaborative research partnership between heat-impacted communities and scientists 

The Chelsea & East Boston Heat (C-HEAT) project began in 2020, through partnership between researchers at Boston University School of Public Health and GreenRoots, a grassroots environmental justice organization, and funded by the Barr Foundation. C-HEAT aims to build capacity for Chelsea and East Boston residents and municipal governments to respond to extreme heat events, through the following activities: 

  • mapping high-risk locations and populations, as well as heat-mitigating community assets, 
  • measuring personal, indoor, and outdoor temperatures, 
  • listening to residents’ experiences coping with heat, and  
  • translating key findings into interventions. 

As a component of C-HEAT, the Photovoice/Fotovoz project brought together twelve residents from neighborhoods in Chelsea and East Boston to share and document their experiences of urban heat and climate change. These residents were a subset of the group who participated in a temperature monitoring campaign during the previous summer. Through weekly meetings during the summer of 2021, participant-researchers discussed themes and created action messages on heat and climate issues relevant to their communities and immediate concerns. This project culminated in a report and an exhibit in Chelsea City Hall in August 2022, which is now available as a virtual exhibit, featuring a selection of the photos, captions, and calls to action centered around themes of environmental equity. Some themes that emerged were the lack of shading trees, vulnerable populations, the need to be creative when cooling, and issues related to water. More on those themes below. 

Where are the trees? Here are the trees!

Residents described tree inequity in their communities in terms of both the citywide shortage of trees—especially in public areas—as well as the locations of existing trees. They documented the greater concentration of trees in wealthier neighborhoods side-by-side with areas where trees are lacking. Alongside their praise for the cooling benefits of trees, they lamented the unbearable conditions in places lacking shade and refuge from the sun, including places they frequent when using public transit and when going about their daily lives. Our findings from C-HEAT’s outdoor temperature sensors support these narratives: on a hot week in 2020, we found an 8°˚F difference between average temperatures in the coolest location, in a waterfront park, and the hottest locations, in downtown Chelsea. This trend has held in the subsequent years of C-HEAT’s temperature collection (2021 and 2022): the waterfront park has remained the coolest location while the hottest locations were in commercial areas surrounded by heat-trapping pavement and few, if any, trees.   

The residents’ nuanced discussion led to calls to action for planting more trees in public areas, creating awareness about current green spaces, and accountability for those who are responsible or have the authority for maintaining and improving green spaces (i.e. landlords, home owners, private property owners, the City). 

Photos and captions by Susana

“On the left is the view of Chestnut Street standing at Beacon Street. The lack of trees and vegetation is notable, particularly given the proximity to the loud and dirty Tobin Bridge. On the right is Boatswain Way, a block away. This street, and the rest of Admiral’s Hill, has an abundance of trees and vegetation that offer protection from the heat as well as the air and noise pollution of the Tobin Bridge. I am hopeful that when city officials see these photos, they’ll see how much inequity is present throughout the city.

Aquí (a la derecha) está la vista de la calle Chestnut tomada desde Beacon Street. La falta de árboles y vegetación es notable, particularmente dada la proximidad al ruidoso y sucio puente Tobin. A una manzana (a la izquierda) está Boatswain Way. Esta calle, y el resto de Admiral’s Hill, tiene una abundancia de árboles y vegetación que ofrecen protección contra el calor, la contaminación del aire y el ruido del puente Tobin. Tengo la esperanza de que cuando los funcionarios de la ciudad vean estas fotos, verán cuánta inequidad está presente en toda la ciudad.”
Photo and captions by Luis.

“This was taken at the end of Suffolk St. merging with Highland St. around 2-3pm. I took this photo because it’s weird how there are trees and they could give you shade, but the trees are so small. It gets so hot around here, and it’s sometimes unbearable.

Esta imagen fue tomada el final de la calle Suffolk uniéndose con la calle Highland alrededor de 2 o 3 de la tarde. Tomé la foto porque es raro ver que aunque hay árboles, y podrían darnos sombra, no lo hacen pues son muy pequeños. Hace tanto calor por aquí, y a veces es insoportable.

Populations vulnerable to heat

Residents described the needs of and dangers to population groups including outdoor workers, older adults, children, people living with low income with less access to cooling, or those who work in hot indoor environments such as kitchens. The participants centered these groups in their calls for action, including protocols for outdoor worker protection, and extended hours for libraries that serve as cooling centers during heat waves. The calls for action also included environmental interventions such as improvement and increased accessibility to green spaces, installation of shade structures in outdoor areas that vulnerable populations use often, and replacement of outdoor surfaces with cooler materials. 

Photo and captions by Roxana.

Mi esposo trabaja en la construcción.  Este es un trabajo pesado, física y emocionalmente, con una continua exposición al frío y el calor intensos. Durante las olas de calor, los trabajadores de la construcción son vulnerables a la deshidratación y golpes de calor, y los efectos del calor intenso pueden incrementar el riesgo de accidentes laborales. Una vez le oí a un trabajador de la construcción contar que en un día de mucho calor, sentía como se le derretían las suelas de los zapatos al caminar por un tejado. ¿Qué protecciones ofrecen las regulaciones laborales para defender a estos trabajadores del calor intenso y sus riesgos en la salud?

My husband works in construction. This is heavy work, physically and emotionally, with continuous exposure to intense heat and cold. During heat waves, construction workers are vulnerable to dehydration and heat stroke, and the effects of intense heat can increase the risk of occupational accidents. Once I heard a construction worker say that on a very hot day, he felt like his shoe soles were melting when walking on a roof. What do labor regulations offer to protect these workers from the intense heat and their health risks?
Photo and captions by Nohemi.

En esta calle de Chelsea, se reparte comida gratis una vez a la semana. La gente hace cola desde muy temprano en la mañana, esperando su turno, durante mucho tiempo. Es duro tener que utilizar este recurso para salir adelante, pero a mayores, en los días calurosos, estas personas deben esperar bajo el sol a que les toque su turno, sin poderse refugiar en una sombra. Algunas de estas personas son mayores, o niños, que tiene que cargar cajas pesadas bajo el calor intenso del verano. ¿Que podría hacer la ciudad al respecto?

On this street in Chelsea, free food is distributed once a week. People are waiting in line early in the morning, waiting for their turn, for a long time. It is hard to have to use these resources to move forward each day, but the elderly —on hot days— they must wait under the sun until it is their turn. Some of these people are elderly, or children, who must carry heavy boxes under the intense heat of summer. What could the city do about this?

Water: the good, the bad, and the ugly

Residents discussed water issues in their community. While Chelsea and East Boston have a substantial amount of waterfront, there is a heavy industrial presence and very limited public access in waterfront areas. Residents expressed the desire to benefit more from the cooling breeze of the waterfront while acknowledging the barriers and burdens of fuel tanks and other industrial uses. In this theme, residents also documented flooding in their communities, connecting it to climate change. The calls to action include improvement to public access to the waterfront, and increasing intergenerational shaded green spaces with water features, as well as a call for municipalities to plan for more water and flooding, and change the way homes are built.  

Photo and captions by Noemy.

Estas son algunas de las sobrecargas ambientales en nuestra comunidad. Las orillas del Creek están ocupadas por tanques. No podemos disfrutar de los efectos refrescantes del agua, pero sufrimos el olor a combustible. ¿Estarán estos tanques preparados para el cambio climático? Es preocupante y frustrante vivir así.

These are some of the environmental overloads in our community. The banks of the Creek are occupied by tanks. We cannot enjoy the cooling effects of water, but we do suffer from the smell of fuel. These tanks, will they be prepared for climate change? It’s worrying and frustrating to live like this.
Photo and captions by John.

The shoreline of Chelsea Creek, near the Andersen bridge. The Urban Wilds Park can be seen in the upper right of the photo. To get to where this photo was taken you must scramble over a bunch of rocks, so it isn’t easy to access. But despite the dirt and debris it’s a calm escape from the bustle and heat of the city. The land exists to create more green spaces in our communities if we can overcome the financial, bureaucratic and political hurdles.

La costa de Chelsea Creek, cerca del puente Andersen. El Urban Wilds Park se puede ver en la parte superior derecha de la foto. Para llegar al lugar donde se tomó esta foto, debes trepar por un montón de rocas, no es de fácil acceso. Pero a pesar de la suciedad y los escombros, es un escape tranquilo del bullicio y el calor de la ciudad. La tierra existe para crear más espacios verdes en nuestras comunidades si podemos superar los obstáculos financieros, burocráticos y políticos.

Keeping it cool, creatively

Residents explored their personal cooling strategies as well as needs and opportunities for cooling spaces for the larger community. They described the challenge of keeping their homes cool while limiting energy use in order to save money, including using fans and window shades. Residents with window AC units described them as inefficient and expensive, especially when houses do not have efficient insulation. It is no surprise, then, that our findings from the 2020 temperature monitoring campaign showed that participants’ AC units failed to cool indoor temperatures to residents’ desired levels. Even when they used AC, we found that maximum temperatures in participants’ homes increased with increasing outdoor temperatures. The Photovoice participants discussed barriers to addressing warm indoor living conditions. An important factor in these renter-majority communities is the inequity in the dynamic between renters living with low incomes and their landlords: renters fear retaliation if they were to advocate for improved cooling resources. Therefore, the calls to action address these concerns, centering the needs of vulnerable groups including renters and residents living with low incomes: 

  • Provide residents a spectrum of cooling strategies for different spaces, ranked by price and energy efficiency. 
  • Support programs with insulation and HVAC system improvements, as many buildings that people rent aren’t updated. 
  • Provide assistance for electricity bills. 
  • Utilize opportunities to combine interventions; make a larger impact. 
  • Create and send out effective messaging and outreach to Spanish-speaking and communities that speak primarily other languages about heat waves, places to go during heat episodes, and strategies for staying safe and healthy while it’s hot. 

We have shared these findings not only with the broader community, but also key community leaders and decision-makers in Chelsea, East Boston, and the region who work at the intersection of public health and heat adaptation.  

Informed by these resident-led priorities, the C-HEAT project has partnered with GreenRoots, Chelsea residents, and the Boston Society of Landscape Architects to revitalize a residential block into an inter-generational green space, adding cool roofs to buildings nearby, as part of the Cool Block project. 

Photo and captions by Mayra.

Este es mi lugar de trabajo. Es un lugar cerrado, y al cocinar se acumulan en la habitación la humedad y el calor intenso, que se hace insoportable. Como el cuarto es muy pequeño no tenemos donde poner un ventilador de suelo, pues las patas no caben. Así que colgamos la cabeza del ventilador en el perchero. Sabemos que no es una solución ideal, pero es todo lo que podemos hacer.

This is my workplace. It is an enclosed space, and when we cook the heat and humidity feels very intense; it feels unbearable. Since the room is very small, we don’t have space for the fan stand on the floor. So, we hang the fan head in the coat hanger. We know it is not an ideal solution, but it is all we can do.
Photo and caption by Luis.

Trying to stay cool with this huge fan. We use this fan all the time during the summer to save on the electricity bill due to the cost of having an AC.

Community-led action  

Community-based participatory action research initiatives such as Photovoice provide the space to center resident needs in decision-making in climate adaptation, and to make visible both the negative effects and the opportunities for progress in our communities. 

Our C-HEAT work is showing that solutions are possible, one partnership at a time. It also shows that looking at life during Danger Season—what helps us, what hurts us—is necessary to finding those solutions. 

By witnessing these community members’ experiences and receiving their calls to action, we can expose heat’s invisibility and reduce the impacts of this silent killer. 

Leila Heidari is a PhD candidate in Environmental Health at the Boston University School of Public Health and a trainee in the Graduate Program in Urban Biogeoscience and Environmental Health (BU URBAN). She applies an environmental justice and community engagement lens to her work on heat exposure and vulnerability. Using quantitative, qualitative, and mixed-methods approaches, she works with collaborators in BU and at GreenRoots, a grassroots environmental justice organization, on the Chelsea and East Boston Heat Study (C-HEAT) (

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