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Seeking solutions
Are government leaders and residents ready to act?

(Top photo by Justin Marine | Wide Angle Youth Media)

Global warming will be costly and neighborhoods must do more


Researchers know how cities can ease the impact of climate change. For starters, they can replace some concrete and asphalt with grass and trees, cover tar roofs with reflective white materials, remove the hard pavement that contributes to flooding and substitute permeable surfacing materials that let water drain through.

All those plans are expensive, but Baltimore Del. Robbyn Lewis says that cities no longer have the luxury of delay, no matter the politics, no matter the resistance from residents, no matter the cost — even in cash-poor Baltimore.

“Do we want to live,” she says, “or do we want to go extinct?”

Around the world, calls for action to address the climate crisis are becoming more urgent. Without bold action to combat global warming by 2030, the effects will be catastrophic, the United Nations has warned. July 2019 was the hottest month recorded on the planet.

To blunt the impact of climate change, officials have proposed dozens of changes, from creating more pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods to banning foam containers. But some neighborhoods, known as heat islands, will need added help because they already feel more of the harmful impact of global warming.

Heat islands tend to have more pavement and fewer trees to provide shade. The households have lower incomes, cope with more chronic illnesses and make more calls for emergency medical help. Planners say these problems are the result of decades of discriminatory legal and financial policies.


Rowhouses have been part of Baltimore for centuries, but they hold heat. A narrow design, thick building materials and few trees can make life inside a rowhouse with no air conditioning unbearable during the summer.

(Motion graphic by Amina Lampkin, Maris Medina and Krishnan Vasudevan; Music: “Curious Nature” by Ketsa, licensed from

Baltimore’s Office of Sustainability acknowledges these problems in the introduction to the city’s sustainability plan:

“Baltimore’s history of deliberate racial segregation has positioned people in unhealthy and inequitable circumstances, deeply affecting the well-being of many of our residents—as well as the social, economic, and environmental well-being of our city,” the introduction to the plan reads.

City Hall has an uneven record on combating the problem.

Some members of the Baltimore City Council have fought for cleaner air and more mass transit. Last year, the city sued 26 oil companies seeking damages for climate change. Oil companies are fighting the suit.

In Baltimore, a law passed this year would force incinerators there to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions substantially. The operator of one of them called the requirements “unachievable.”

“Do we want to live, or do we want to go extinct?”
- Baltimore Del. Robbyn Lewis

But recently, the mayor and City Council president have missed opportunities to take clear stands on how to protect citizens from the worst of global warming.

One August afternoon, a surprise thunderstorm poured more than 5 inches of rain on downtown at rush hour, leaving cars stranded at a flooded intersection, with at least one driver calling for help from atop his vehicle’s roof.

When a reporter from The Daily Record asked Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young about the damage and climate change, Young said that he is not worried about more waterfront development. His office did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Rising seas will put waterfront businesses and homes at greater risk.

Earlier this summer, City Council President Brandon M. Scott said in an interview with University of Maryland journalists that all city problems, from crime to education to global warming, are intertwined. A few weeks later, Scott released an agenda of 26 priorities for city government.

The list did not specifically mention climate change.

Setting goals

Real fixes will require major changes in how we live, in the fuel we use, the transportation we ride and the neighborhoods we inhabit.

Baltimore has set a goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent below 2007 levels by next year, in line with the Paris climate accords.

Other objectives included reducing energy use in buildings, increasing recycling, promoting solar and other renewable energy and urging development near transit stops to promote the use of buses and light rail.

The sustainability office’s 2016-2018 report says: city agencies are testing electric vehicles, the Port of Baltimore has reduced levels of greenhouse gas emissions and the city has signed a pledge supporting clean energy and tighter standards for car emissions with Climate Mayors, whose members are committed to policy changes that will fight climate change.

Finding the money to accomplish the goals is a problem, especially in a city where nearly 30% of households have incomes below $25,000.

Community collaboration

photo of Sacoby Wilson

Sacoby Wilson is a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Maryland, College Park. He says too many people are not working to combat climate change because they think it’s a challenge for the future, not a crisis today. (Photo by Maris Medina | University of Maryland)

Sacoby Wilson, associate professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health, said that the fight against climate change needs to come not just from government but from neighborhoods as well. Yet too many people, Wilson said, are not working on the problem because they think the issue is a challenge for the future, not a crisis today.

Discussions of global warming have tended to focus on melting glaciers and endangered polar bears … creating “a connection gap,” he said, for people living in cities.

“Polar bears, saving penguins — that’s not proximal,” Wilson said. “When you think about environmental change, you’ve got to make it proximal” by describing the impact it is having on nearly every aspect of neighborhood life, pocketbook issues from food to health to jobs. Then, he said, residents are more inclined to be a part of the solution.

Managers in the Baltimore Office of Sustainability agree, and the 2019 sustainability plan is based on collaboration with neighborhood residents. The plan was crafted through what it calls a “racial equity lens,” recognizing that some communities have fewer resources than others, a problem created by patterns of discrimination.

Baltimore's cooling centers

During periods of extreme heat, the Baltimore Health Department designates some government-owned buildings as cooling centers. When Baltimore’s health commissioner declared a Code Red emergency July 16-22, the city opened even more buildings to supplement the usual locations. The closest one to McElderry Park was about a mile away, on East Chase Street. The closest senior center cooling location, a half -mile away in the 2600 block of East Baltimore Street, was not open on the weekend.


Source: Baltimore City Health Department

Anne Draddy, who oversaw the 2019 update of the city’s sustainability plan, said, “It's a very intentional look to raise people up and support people who have historically not been supported as well as they could have.”

The report is an ambitious framework for the city to address change and social equity. The plan’s aspirations include adding more trees and urban farms, encouraging schools to teach environmental literacy and environmental justice, and increasing the use of renewable energy and electric cars.

“We need to shift from plan development to action.”
- Kristin Baja, Urban Sustainability Directors Network

Kristin Baja, a former climate resilience planner for Baltimore’s sustainability office who now works for the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, said plans are useful in providing city governments and residents with a work structure. But cities can sometimes get caught in a “cycle of plan development,” she said.

“We need to shift from plan development to action,” she said, “and these plans need to be actionable and they have to be actionable with a wide range of partners that are not just city government.”

Baltimore has released a series of plans since 2009 that deal with the overlapping issues of climate change, natural disaster preparedness and sustainability.

Urban Heat Island

Urban heat island describes the phenomenon of cities being hotter than surrounding rural areas.

  • Vegetation provides shade and moisture through evapotranspiration. Because trees and plants have surfaces that can absorb water, they can release that absorbed water into the air, and cool the surrounding atmosphere.

  • With less vegetation, surfaces like roofs, pavements and sidewalks absorb heat and do not put moisture back into the air. These surfaces also absorb more heat than soil or sand.

  • Once all the heat is absorbed into the pavement, it is slowly released at night. The geometry of a city also matters. The proximity of buildings means heat cannot be efficiently and totally released at night, increasing the amount of time it takes for these surfaces to cool down.

  • According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, ground surfaces in cities can be 18 to 27 degrees Fahrenheit warmer during the day and nine to 18 degrees warmer at night when compared to rural areas.

Source: “Reducing Urban Heat Islands: Compendium of Strategies,” United States Environmental Protection Agency

Around the country, cities have taken bold stands on climate. Boston’s goal is to achieve a net zero carbon footprint by 2050, meaning the city would have equal levels of carbon emission and reduction. Portland, Oregon, which was a leader on the issue with a climate action plan published in 1993, aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.

According to the Sierra Club, seven states, Puerto Rico and 127 American cities including Cincinnati, Cleveland and St. Louis, have committed to generating 100% of their electricity from clean, renewable sources by 2050. None is in Maryland.

Volunteers renting jackhammers

Lewis, the state delegate, offers an example of volunteers doing for themselves.

She moved to a rowhouse north of Patterson Park in 2002, to a block that had two street trees.

Instead of waiting for the city to plant trees, Lewis and her neighbors made their own plans — building, she says, on the networks that community organizations and longtime residents had already created for improving the neighborhood.

The neighbors won grants from local nonprofits. They went to nurseries and big-box stores for trees. Then the neighbors got permits from the city, rented jackhammers and began breaking up the sidewalk. They carried the concrete chunks to rented dumpsters.

“We did everything,” Lewis said. “We were young. It was so much fun.”

On their first planting day, they had more than 20 volunteers. Eventually, they numbered about 300. Over the next few years, they had planted 400 trees in Southeast Baltimore. And her street now has trees, including fast-growing sweetgums, in front of nearly every rowhouse.

photo of Delegate Robbyn Lewis
“Here’s the good news. Human beings are smart enough to put a robot on the surface of Mars ... [so] we can bloody well figure out how to handle some simple man-made problems in a beautiful old city.”

“New leaders see the connection between economics, health, environment.”

"We're in an emergency. We need to get renewable energy now."

“There’s nothing that can’t be addressed. There’s nothing outside of our capability to fix. I’m optimistic."


(Photo by Amina Lampkin | University of Maryland)

Creating green space

The Amazing Port Street commons, a field behind Amazing Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in McElderry Park, is another improvement done by the neighborhood.

The space used to be a blighted block of vacant houses. Years ago, the houses were razed and the lot was converted to green space. The alley is reserved for pedestrians.

The area, owned by Charm City Land Trusts, is the largest public green space in McElderry Park.

photo of Natalie Cohen in the field behind Amazing Grace garden

Public health experts say efforts to combat the effects of climate change must come from neighborhoods, not just from government. Natalie Cohen, former environmental educator at Amazing Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in McElderry Park, teaches children in a summer program to grow vegetables, providing food and green space to residents of the urban heat island. (Photo by Maris Medina | University of Maryland)

Natalie Cohen, who was the church’s environmental coordinator and educator for two years, led gardening groups in a fenced-off patch behind the church. She said the space helps neighbors get to know each other by gathering for events like cookouts.

Cohen thinks more vacant buildings should be demolished and replaced with parks. “Knock ’em down,” she said.

The role of government

Certain large-scale projects, however, fall to government.

Even “if you had a perfectly green city with a perfect tree canopy you would still have a city that would require some other interventions to help it in other ways,” said Kurt Shickman, executive director of the Global Cool Cities Alliance.

Replacing dark-colored roofs with white or “cool roofs” that reflect rather than absorb sunlight can help lower temperatures, Shickman said. When the light hits black roofs, which cover many Baltimore rowhouses, just 5% is reflected. But if constructed with light colors or reflective materials, up to 80% of sunlight is reflected, reducing interior temperatures.

Roofs and pavements cover 60% of urban landscapes, according to the Global Cool Cities Alliance, which works with cities around the world to install cool roofs. If adopted in entire neighborhoods, cool roofs can lower even outdoor temperatures by 3 degrees, Shickman said.

“The fact of the matter is, we are wasting our roof space to a large degree,” Shickman said.

Beyond roofs, cities can replace the asphalt and concrete that make up sidewalks and alleys with more porous materials. These permeable materials allow stormwater to trickle through and move more slowly, which reduces the chance that heavy rains will overwhelm storm drains and dump sewage and debris into the harbor.

Any solution to urban heat cannot be completed with a one-size-fits-all approach, said Shickman, but changes such as cool roofs and more shade trees should be a part of an “integrated solution.”

The State House’s role

The state has had mixed progress in recent years. Maryland recently adopted the Clean Energy Jobs Act, which mandates that 50% of the energy the state uses comes from renewable sources, such as solar and wind. The law is expected to significantly cut carbon emissions.

Environmentalists have been highly critical of Gov. Larry Hogan’s efforts to expand Interstate 270, Interstate 495 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, which will add more cars to the road.

Hogan also allowed construction to proceed on the Purple Line, a train which will connect Maryland’s Washington suburbs. But in 2015, he canceled the Red Line, which would have connected East and West Baltimore to jobs downtown. The decision returned close to $1 billion to the federal government.

Hogan’s office deferred questions about the climate crisis to the Department of the Environment. A Department of Environment spokesperson, Jay Apperson, said that in May, Hogan issued a goal of 100 percent clean electricity by 2040. The administration has also worked with other northeastern states on the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which caps carbon emissions from power plants.

This summer, Hogan created a task force to recommend locations for solar and wind energy projects. He also directed the state to inventory state-owned buildings to see which could use solar energy, Apperson said.

"The scale of the climate crisis requires massive changes to all of our systems.”
- Denise Robbins, Chesapeake Climate Action Network

Denise Robbins, a spokeswoman for the grassroots Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said Maryland has a lot of work to do on climate change, but “Hogan is not leading the charge.”

Lewis, the Baltimore delegate, added, “Elections matter. We have to be organized and relentless in choosing our leaders.”

Even if national policies that reduce carbon emissions succeed, Thomas A. Burke, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said urban heat islands will lag behind in terms of temperature and air quality.

Residents need to be stewards of their own environments, he said. And public health advocates should be involved in discussions between city officials and real estate developers.

“Leadership has to come from the community and city level,” said Burke, who was a scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency during the Obama administration.

Harriett Alexander has lived in McElderry Park for decades. She used to be active in the community association and helped plant street trees.

photo of Harriett Alexander

McElderry Park resident Harriett Alexander says people shouldn’t wait for government to combat climate change and should do more to help themselves. (Photo by Ian Round | University of Maryland)

Retired from Armco Steel and the city schools, she now tends perennials planted in large pots on the sidewalk outside her rowhouse, sweeps the sidewalk and scrubs her steps.

What can the city do to help her neighborhood with climate change? Alexander thought about it for a few seconds, then said, “Maybe clean the alleys more.” Later she added, “And plant more trees.”

But she knows people have to pitch in. “Why should the city have to do some things that you can do yourself?”

Baja, the sustainability planner, agrees, in part because there’s no time to waste.

“Our real fault has been in continuing to host conferences and workshops and develop plans, and not to act. And this fear of action,” she said, “is now leading us down a path of no return in some ways.

“Everyone has a responsibility,” Baja said. “Everyone needs to be taking action.”

photo of mother and daughter in Patterson Park, Baltimore

A mother and her daughter walk toward the Patterson Park Pool in Baltimore after buying ice cream from a truck during the heatwave on Saturday, July 20, 2019. (Photo by Amina Lampkin | University of Maryland)

University of Maryland reporters Leah Brennan and Danielle Kiefer contributed to this story.

CODE RED: Baltimore's Climate Divide

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ABOUT THIS PROJECT: This work is a collaboration between the University of Maryland's Howard Center for Investigative Journalism and Capital News Service, NPR, Wide Angle Youth Media in Baltimore and WMAR television. Learn more about the reporting behind the stories here. Read the first installment of this investigation into the effects of climate change on public health in Baltimore, "Bitter Cold."

FUNDING FOR THE PROJECT: Support for this project comes from generous grants from the Scripps Howard Foundation, the Park Foundation, the Online News Association, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Philip Merrill College of Journalism.