Keeping Their Cool

Franco Montalto, PhD, was standing in the blazing sun, watching as one of his partners poured a fresh layer of soil into a waist-high planter. Suddenly, a gray SUV stopped in the middle of the street.

“Yo,” a voice shouted from the opening window. “How do I get one of those things for my house?”

The question is one that Montalto gets over and over again when he visits the Hunting Park neighborhood of Philadelphia, where last year he led a group to install the planters — which are built into outdoor seating with umbrellas — along with sprinklers on the 4400 block of North Marshall Street to address a desperate need for cooling in one of the city’s most heat vulnerable areas.

Priscilla Johnson has lived in Hunting Park for nearly three decades. She says that the once-shaded neighborhood is now too hot for neighbors to congregate outdoors.

“Hunting Park is an urban heat island, meaning that the sidewalks and stone buildings retain heat while the lack of vegetation leads to higher humidity and lower shade,” explains Avani Kavathekar, a sophomore environmental engineering major from Malvern, Pennsylvania. As part of a STAR Scholars research project, Kavathekar is working with Montalto and others to measure the temperature, humidity and other heat-adjacent factors in the neighborhood and comparing it to more rural areas nearby. “It all has a terrible health impact on the people who live here, which is why this project is so important.”

In a typical summer, the City of Philadelphia will provide a variety of ways for people to cool off – from public pools and parks with sprinklers to air-conditioned cooling centers and extended hours at libraries. But the summer of 2020 added extra challenges. Montalto hopes to use engineering solutions to help.

“Hunting Park has been in need of cooling strategies for years,” Montalto says. “But with COVID shutting everything down last year, typical escapes weren’t available. It was critical that we do something.”

Montalto gathered a team of Drexel researchers, civil scientists and contractors and partnered with the Philadelphia Office of Sustainability and Esperanza, a faith-based, non-profit community group who have been leading the effort to address the extreme heat challenges in Hunting Park as part of the city’s Beat the Heat Hunting Park initiative. He pitched the idea to install the planters and sprinklers on Marshall Street to the William Penn Foundation, who provided funding.

Montalto (left) chats with Avani Kavathekar, a sophomore environmental engineering major.

The project brought relief to the street, which neighbors say has suffered from a lack of natural sources of shade.

“When I first moved around here, it wasn’t as hot,” says Priscilla Johnson, a 29-year resident and block captain of Marshall Street. “We had trees up and down the block, but the street wasn’t designed to have mature trees. Their roots got tied up in our plumbing and tore up our sidewalks. They had to go, but nobody thought about how to keep the neighborhood cool with them gone.”

As the afternoon sun beats down on Marshall Street, it heats the blacktop and the housefronts, in turn raising the temperatures indoors. The Beat the Heat program helped get fans and air conditioning units into residents’ homes, but even in the best-case scenario, that solution limited people to one or two rooms in their homes where the cooling could help. The shade structures provide individual escapes. The respite is good not only for each individual, but for the block as a whole.

“We could go days without seeing one of our neighbors because they can’t come out into the heat,” Johnson says. “The shade makes it easier to come outside, sit for a while, and talk with your neighbor. That brings us closer together as a community.”

But Montalto’s approach is about more than creating temporary relief from the summer sun. Together with Angelo Zaharatos, an architect and founder of Garden Direct, Inc., a company specializing in sustainability design and agriculture systems, Montalto and his team held workshops for neighborhood residents to teach them how to build the planters. They were paid for their time and labor, and some have gone on to secure construction jobs.

“Good craftspeople are always in demand, so preparing folks with skills they can use in that field will set them up for long-term employment,” Zaharatos says. “But the goal wasn’t just to teach woodworking, but also life skills. If you can design this one little planter, you can redesign your life.”

The project was such a success on Marshall Street that Montalto reached out to the William Penn Foundation even earlier in 2021 and secured $450,000 to hire a larger crew and install the planters on six more blocks. Esperanza, who are managing the administrative side of the project, now have a waiting list for individuals and blocks who want their area to be the next to get the planters.

And the help keeps coming. In addition to hiring community partners to build planters, Montalto has enlisted co-op students and STAR Scholars like Kavathekar and Alyssa Kemp, a sophomore environmental engineering major from Cavalier, North Dakota, to conduct surveys and crunch data on the effect they have on residents’ well-being. Kemp says that the work fits in with her reasons for entering the field.

“I chose environmental engineering because it has a very tangible impact,” Kemp says. “This gives me a chance to fix peoples’ everyday problems right now and to make a difference for a community.”

Montalto says that project has potential for significant growth year over year and is preparing proposals to seek additional funding. And he hopes that the efforts can be a model for other local governments to address the human cost of climate change.

“We have been saying for decades that we need to fix the climate, and even now, governments continue to put out plans to reduce carbon emissions over the next 10, 15, 30 years,” Montalto says. “But people — especially those who are most in need — are already feeling the effects of climate change. There’s no time to waste. We need to act now.”