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Working to Narrow Health Inequity Gap with Hotter Days Ahead

Residents of Denver's Westwood neighborhood, including Santiago Jaramillo, are working to raise awareness about climate change in the community. (Joe Mahoney/The Colorado Trust)
Residents of Denver's Westwood neighborhood, including Santiago Jaramillo, are working to raise awareness about climate change in the community. (Joe Mahoney/The Colorado Trust)
September 19, 2017

DENVER – If climate pollution continues at current levels, Denver could see more than a month of 100-plus degree days by 2050 in the worst years, according to analysis from the city and county of Denver.

Elizabeth Babcock, the manager of air, water and climate with the city's Department of Environment and Health, says that's compared to a historic average of less than one extreme-heat day annually. She notes low-income and communities of color, children and neighborhoods without parks and trees could see the biggest health impacts.

"If you're elderly, if you live alone, if you have diabetes, if you have a cognitive disability - all of those things put you at greater risk in the event of extreme heat," she explains.

To stay ahead of the climate-change curve, Babcock's department created a Denver Heat Vulnerability Map. The interactive tool assigns a score for each neighborhood's capacity to adapt, which Babcock says helps identify areas with the greatest need and steps that can be taken to mitigate risks.

The Sun Valley neighborhood, just south of the Broncos' stadium, gets a high heat-vulnerability score for poor housing stock and social isolation. The Denver Housing Authority has partnered with the Sun Valley Eco-District to redevelop hundreds of units built in the more temperate 1950s.

Jeanne Granville, with the group, Fresh Start Denver, says most apartments don't have air conditioning or even nearby shade.

"Nobody complains too much because most of them are just really grateful to be in housing," she says. "The priority now for them is that their families have food on the table and are having basic needs met."

The map identifies 12 neighborhoods as highly vulnerable to heat-related health impacts.

Babcock says she hopes the DEH map will help engage communities to identify short, medium and long-term goals so that more hot days on the horizon doesn't translate into more inequality.

"It's really critical from a health perspective to make sure that we're providing equitable resources and solutions across the entire city," Babcock stresses.

In Denver's Westwood neighborhood, residents are already stepping up. Local groups have formed a coalition to gather data and develop new climate-friendly infrastructure - including a greenway to promote tree planting, water quality, walkability and bikeability.

This story was produced with original reporting from Larry Borowsky for The Colorado Trust.

Eric Galatas, Public News Service - CO