Impact Stories

Advancing Environmental Justice Through Data: An In-depth Look at the Healthy PIaces Index Extreme Heat Edition

Impact Story | August 15, 2023
Los Angeles, CA (Public Health Alliance of Southern California)--Climate Change, referred to by the UN as the “greatest threat ever faced by modern humans,” is the most dire public health crisis of our time.  The detrimental health, economic, and social consequences of escalating extreme weather events are not experienced equally across communities.  Instead, they amplify pre-existing racial disparities that pervade a spectrum of health outcomes.  
“Geography should not dictate destiny; every family, no matter where they live, work, play, and worship, deserves to be protected from the impacts of climate change, including extreme heat,” said Helen Dowling, MPH, Director of Data Initiatives at the Public Health Alliance (Alliance).  
 Now, more than ever, there is a need for comprehensive, equitable data and innovative tools to guide climate resiliency building efforts, like the Alliance's Healthy Places Index Extreme Heat Edition (HPI: EHE.) Developed in partnership with the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)  Luskin Center for Innovation, HPI: EHE visualizes projected neighborhood-level heat impacts and community resilience factors.  

Before we explore HPI: EHE, we must first examine how historic policies have shaped disturbing racial disparities in climate change-related health effects across the United States.

How Racist Policies Have Impacted Climate Resilience  

  Institutionalized racism has skewed the distribution of environmental hazards, favoring white communities and subjecting communities of color to disproportionate environmental harm. This concept, known as environmental racism, is evidenced in the placement of toxic facilities, major roadways, and other health-harming infrastructure in predominantly non-white neighborhoods, exposing these communities to higher levels of pollution and health risks. Meanwhile, predominantly white communities have been able to enjoy enhanced living conditions, health outcomes, and property values due to less pollution, furthering wealth accumulation and socio-economic disparities.

The legacy of environmental racism today is deeply intertwined with redlining, a historic practice outlawed in 1968 that systematically segregated communities along racial lines and resulted in substantial benefits for white communities at the expense of BIPOC  (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities. Redlining, by design, provided predominantly white neighborhoods with greater access to resources like quality infrastructure and green spaces, making them more resilient to climate impacts. This resilience is seen in lower heat-related mortality and morbidity rates in these communities, largely the result of this investment and prioritization. Meanwhile, historically redlined BIPOC communities continue to face the lasting impacts of disinvestment, visible in increased vulnerability to climate change and heat-related health issues.    

Despite years of chronic disinvestment, BIPOC communities have pioneered innovative strategies to counter the damages of environmental racism and injustice. It's critical that we acknowledge these harms by substantially investing in the community's proven strategies, solutions, and priorities that have already catalyzed change and begun to build climate resilience. HPI: EHE is a tool that can facilitate this very paradigm shift.

Advancing Climate Resilience with the Healthy PIaces Index Extreme Heat Edition

Where we live, and the ongoing legacies of racist policies, have a profound impact on our health. That’s why the Alliance developed the California Healthy Place Index (HPI.)HPI is a peer-reviewed and published tool that measures the impact of community conditions – like clean air, safe and affordable housing, and access to green spaces - on population health and provides recommendations for policy action, all using a positive, asset-based frame.  
The HPI is a trusted mapping, data, and policy platform that has been used to equitably direct over $4.2 billion in community investments across the state. The Alliance’s HPI: EHE builds on this platform, leveraging HPI’s data on community conditions combined with the latest climate projections of extreme heat. The HPI: EHE illustrates how extreme heat and community conditions can affect neighborhoods now and, in the years to come.  

Funded by the California Strategic Growth Council, the Alliance was contracted by UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation to co-create HPI: EHE. The decision to develop the HPI: EHE emerged from ongoing discussions about the need for platforms that project how communities can withstand rising temperatures and where opportunities exist to build climate resilience.  

Using HPI: EHE you can see that communities with healthier conditions – measured by higher HPI scores - are better equipped to prepare, respond, and recover from extreme heat events.
The Healthy Places Index Extreme Heat Edition is more than data on projected extreme heat in California - it's designed to help you take that data into action. It gives you the tools to find the places most sensitive to the impacts of extreme heat, and to discover resources and opportunities to build resilience together with our communities,“ Dowling explained.  
People can use HPI: EHE to understand their neighborhoods' extreme heat risk, assess the impact on sensitive populations, and identify resources to build resilience such as urban greening programs, low carbon transit programs, low-income weatherization programs, and environmental justice grants.

 With HPI: EHE, people can see projected extreme heat alongside health indicators such as emergency visits for asthma, heart attacks, strokes, and diabetes prevalence. It also helps highlight the populations historically most affected by heat, including communities of color, seniors, people with disabilities, mothers and infants, non-English speakers, and youth.

“Community involvement was crucial during the Healthy Places Index Extreme Heat Edition’s development to ensure it meets the needs and interests of those most affected by climate change. Community partners and stakeholders played an active role in shaping its features, functions, and data, making it both well-informed and effective,” said Ruth Engel, Ph.D. Project Manager for Environmental Data Science, at the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation.

Applications of the Healthy Places Index Extreme Heat Edition

HPI: EHE can be applied in many ways by schools and school districts, government agencies, tribal organizations, community members, and more.  
Here are some examples:

Schools: Extreme heat inhibits student learning and performance in the classroom and has even led to school closures in under-resourced areas. Using HPI: EHE, school administrators can select the “School Districts” geography and see what districts could be most impacted by heat now and in the years to come. They can then head to “Resources to Address Extreme Heat” for Schools to find opportunities to build resilience, like programs to fund improvements like air conditioning, electrical systems, and weatherization.  

Housing: Affordable, weather-resistant housing and utilities are key to combating the health hazards of extreme heat. Governments can use HPI: EHE, to pinpoint areas with high housing cost burdens, older housing stock, or mobile homes that are disproportionately vulnerable to heat to direct equitable investments. HPI: EHE’s resource list offers government officials grants for affordable housing construction and renovation. Similarly, residents can utilize HPI: EHE, to identify programs for free weatherproofing services and utility discounts.  

Research: Researchers can apply HPI: EHE to examine the connection between access to green spaces and the effects of extreme heat in various communities broken down by race and ethnicity. Similarly, epidemiologists can use HPI: EHE to explore the relationship between social determinants of health, extreme heat, and health outcomes like asthma, heart attacks, and diabetes in different neighborhoods.  Both approaches can guide best-practice policy recommendations in urban planning and shape equitable programs and interventions.

"The Healthy Places Index Extreme Heat Edition has been useful to students exploring climate resilience both in the classroom and through applied projects in collaboration with local government. As students identify opportunities to address the effects of past pollution and economic neglect, they have used data on extreme heat projections to advocate for heat equity and suggest ways in which frontline communities can receive the resources they deserve amidst increasingly severe extreme heat events,” Engel added.

Driving Transformational Change with the Healthy Places Index Extreme Heat Edition

Addressing environmental injustice starts with equitable data and effective tools to decipher it. HPI: EHE, is the only neighborhood-level map in the U.S. that directly embeds resources and recommendations for action alongside its data, all using a positive, asset-based frame.  By illuminating disparities and helping channel resources where they're most needed, HPI: EHE, can catalyze systemic change.

“We'll only be able to address the impacts of extreme heat if we partner with our communities to build resilience together. Everyone in California deserves to have a long, healthy, and fulfilling life, and that includes being able to weather the impacts of projected extreme heat. Tools like the Healthy Places Index Extreme Heat Edition can really help make this vision a reality,” Dowling emphasized.  
HPI: EHE is designed to go beyond merely weathering the climate crisis; it's about building an equitable, sustainable future where all communities thrive. By providing actionable data on projected extreme heat impacts across California, HPI: EHE supports creating a legacy of resilient and flourishing communities in the face of extreme heat for generations to come.  

Use this link to learn more about HPI: EHE and discover how it can be used to build climate resilience!