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Social networks boost heat wave resilience

Spring/Summer 2014 | By Donald Radcliffe

Heat waves are the most deadly form of natural disaster, taking far more human lives than dramatic events such as hurricanes and floods. 

livable cities climate readiness“There tends to be very little awareness about the dangers of extreme heat,” says Richard Keller, a medical historian and affiliate of the Nelson Institute Center for Culture, History and Environment. “It’s the sort of thing that we often think of as an inconvenience rather than a true danger.” 

Such ambivalence can be fatal. When a heat wave struck Europe in the summer of 2003, 70,000 people died. By comparison, Hurricane Katrina – one of the five deadliest hurricanes in the history of the United States – caused 1,836 deaths in 2005. 

Keller set out to learn more about those lost in the European heat wave, to determine who had died and why. After reading every document he could access from his computer in Madison, he traveled to Paris, where more than 1,000 people had perished during the 2003 event. He dug through French archives, and then he hit the streets. 

Keller interviewed the neighbors of a group known as the “forgotten bodies” of the heat wave – people whose remains had not been claimed and were subsequently buried by the government – by tracking down the addresses of these victims. 

“There tends to be
very little awareness
about the dangers
of extreme heat.”

He was interested in these “forgotten” people because social isolation correlates with heat wave mortality. People living alone don’t have anyone to check on them, to tell them if they are looking unwell, or to call an ambulance if they collapse. This isolation dramatically increases the danger for the elderly, poor, or mentally or physically disabled. 

Of those groups, the elderly are the most at risk, according to Keller. People become less able to regulate body heat as they grow older and thus are less resilient under heat stress. Their sensory systems don’t work as well; older people often don’t feel as thirsty as they should, and they might feel cold when they are truly too hot. These factors are particularly dangerous because seniors often live alone.

Neighborhood networks

One morning in Paris, at a local café, Keller saw an example of a social safety net in action as an older neighbor stepped through the door.

“He walked into the cafe and checked in with the bartender, then handed the bartender something and leaned over,” says Keller. “The bartender put eye drops in the man’s eyes and helped him take his medication.That suggested to me that the elderly man was plugged into a social network.”

At the time, Keller was comparing two neighborhoods – one that was older, and one that had been renovated in the 1970s.

Eiffel Tower and skyscrapers in Paris
More than 1,000 people died in Paris during a 2003
heat wave. Keller believes the breakdown of social
infrastructure in some neighborhoods may be at fault.

The older neighborhood was full of traditional cafes and bakeries, mainstays of Parisian social life. The newer neighborhood consisted of high-rise apartment buildings, and the traditional cafes hadn’t been rebuilt after they were bulldozed.

And there were distinct demographic differences. The people in the traditional neighborhood were more financially secure, suggesting they would be less vulnerable to heat waves. But they were also generally older, which would make them more vulnerable.

When the heat wave of 2003 hit, people in the newer neighborhood – who were younger on average — died at much higher rates than people in the older neighborhood. Why? Keller suspects that the breakdown of social infrastructure may be at fault.

“The loss of neighborhood, through the loss of the social networks that are embedded in bakeries and cafes, indicates to me a powerful degree of vulnerability,” says Keller. “There is something lost in the transition to modern housing.”

While it can be a challenge to manufacture a sense of community, Keller suggests that neighborhoods can be designed with sociability in mind.

The best solutions increase face-to-face encounters with neighbors, he says. That includes simple things like sidewalks, retail stores within neighborhoods, or more cafes. Limiting parking can even increase sociability, because it forces people to spend time outside of their cars.

The bottom line: Finding ways to enable social networks through community planning may save lives. When extreme events such as heat waves occur, neighborhoods with more social interaction are likely to be more resilient.

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