San Antonio’s ‘heat islands’ are disproportionately affecting low-income neighborhoods

Residents on the city’s Westside are experiencing little to no shade outside, higher air-conditioning bills and health problems exacerbated by the Texas heat.

By Cristela JonesAugust 2, 2022 4:13 pm,

San Antonio has seen over 50 days of 100-plus-degree weather so far this year and is likely to break the record for the most in a calendar year.

While weathering the Texas heat continues to be an issue across the state, it’s proving to be especially difficult for low-income communities in San Antonio. Edgar Sandoval, a national desk reporter for The New York Times based in San Antonio, joined the Texas Standard to share his latest findings from the Alamo City’s “Heat Island Effect.”

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: What are “heat islands?”

Edgar Sandoval: It’s a very interesting phenomenon that affects mostly low-income people of color. So that happens when large portions of concrete and asphalt absorb the heat from the sun. And because of the lack of green spaces, it dispels out into the community. So this causes neighborhoods to be hotter than average.

Which came first, the lack of green space or the fact that they were low-income communities? How do the two go hand in hand?

Right. So it sounds like people that I interview in the community that at some point they remember being more green spaces in the community. And because of the lack of resources over time, they just lost them and they will never replace. And some of the old warehouses are still there. A lot of homes are made of concrete and the sidewalks and construction continues around them. But I think these spaces never came back. So that’s what they have to kind of deal every day with this intense heat.

What’s the difference that some trees and some grass makes when it comes to actually feeling the temperature?

You know, for one, the shade, right? So, if you standing under a tree, you feel less heat coming through your body. But also it’s just, you know, the more green spaces that are available in your community, the cooler the place just feels – like if you go to a park near a lake or even like the more wealthy neighborhoods, it just feels like temperature’s a little bit lower. And even that degree of five or more can make a big difference.

Let’s dig deep into what you were saying about the different neighborhoods. You talk a lot about the Westside of San Antonio in your reporting – what do you see among residents in that particular area compared to, say, the River Walk area that a lot of tourists are familiar with?

Right. So I spend a lot of time on the historic Westside. It’s only a mile from downtown San Antonio, but a world away in many ways. It’s a low-income area with a lot of older residents who cannot afford to plug their A/C sometimes. A lot of people that I spoke with say that they spend about $250 to $350 a month – and for them that’s a lot of money, so they have to choose between providing for medicine, groceries, or turning their A/C on. So they just have to endure sweltering weather inside their small apartments; they feel like the heat sometimes can be hotter inside than outside.

What kind of research are scientists doing to prove that heat in urban areas is not being distributed equitably?

Yes, I mean, there are studies taking place around the country and they kind of agree that poor neighborhoods are disadvantaged. They basically don’t have the resources to combat the heat waves, because they’re becoming more frequent. They just don’t have the tools every year to basically stay cool, you know, in these areas.

What’s being done about this in San Antonio in particular? In your reporting, you mention a “Beat the Heat” campaign; can you explain what that is and if it’s helping at all?

Yeah. So they sent me a long statement, that basically states that the way they reach out to the community is by informing them via social media or television and other sources of communication and to give them a guide on how to stay cool. If you don’t have an A/C, they recommend that you take frequent showers to keep your body temperature low. You know, they ask you to stay home as much as possible. And if that’s not possible [or] if it’s too hot inside the house, then to find a cooling center. 

These sound like short-term solutions. Is there anything being done or anyone advocating for say, hey, we need to invest in planting some trees, making space that in the long term is going to make this a more comfortable living space for the people who live here?

Right. There are definitely a lot of requests to do that. You know, they’re asking for more green spaces. They’re asking for more shade. Some bus stops don’t have them. And waiting for a bus can be really excruciating. They’re asking just for more resources. And I met with a woman who goes around delivering water to poor people and homeless people because she sees a need for desperate help, and what she can do is provide a banana and a bottle of water to people who need it.

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