Linking GIS, youth environmental literacy, and city government functions to define and catalyze community heat resilience planning in Roanoke, VA

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Virginia Tech


Statistics show that chronic heat exposure and extreme heat waves are the leading cause of death amongst natural disasters in urban spaces across the United States, outpacing the likes of more notable phenomena such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes. Heat in urban spaces is not distributed equally due to the urban heat island effect, a phenomenon which significantly elevates temperatures due to the various absorption characteristics of built environment features. Historical discriminatory mortgage lending schemes and planning practices that targeted communities of color have intensified that issue, endangering the health and well-being of marginalized neighborhoods to this day. Although generating feasible design solutions to mitigate the impact of heat in urban spaces represents a substantial challenge, utilizing readily available data sources to garner the social and political support required for actionable change is likely the more complex issue. Because youth are typically less jaded by external social and political influences and will either enjoy the benefits or suffer the consequences related to the built environment for their entire adult life, they possess a unique potential to serve as a vehicle for generating community momentum for the implementation of heat resilience solutions. This thesis explores the spatial distribution of heat throughout neighborhoods in Roanoke, Virginia by exploring both land surface temperature and air temperature discrepancies by Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC) classification and census tract. I find that HOLC polygons not labeled "A" possess a considerably higher average temperature than the most "desirable" classification, and that there is a statistically significant inverse relationship between mean land surface temperature (aggregation of Landsat raster files) and census tract socio demographic characteristics such as median household income and percentage of residents aged 65 and over. This thesis also examines the potential of youth-focused science education programs to catalyze the political will necessary to enact resilience planning efforts that no single governmental agency is responsible for. I analyzed the various impacts that artifacts produced by a 2021 science education program conducted with Roanoke City middle school students inflicted on a 2022 focus group comprised of influential Roanoke public officials. I show the reasoning which supports that four primary opportunity and challenge categories – Breaking Down Silos, Spreading Awareness, Places and Venues, and Resources and Funding – can serve as foundational discussion components for heat resilience planning panels in the future. This thesis advances the awareness of disproportionate exposure to heat in urban spaces and contributes to theories attempting to trigger heat resilience planning efforts.



urban planning, geographic information systems, heat resilience, science education