Partnership JournalismSeptember 29, 2020

Climate change and concrete turn up heat on vulnerable communities in New Jersey's cities

By Michael Sol Warren, NJ Advance Media for and Charles Wohlforth, Climate Central

Down Bottom Farms, an urban farm operated by the Ironbound Community Corporation in Newark's Ironbound neighborhood. September 21, 2020. Michael Sol Warren | NJ Advance Media for

Where Newark is a desert of concrete and asphalt, Down Bottom Farms is an oasis of life.

Once a vacant lot, the urban farm now serves as a space for residents of the city’s historic Ironbound neighborhood to connect with their food and community. But nourishing the plants at Down Bottom Farms takes work, and that effort can be downright brutal in the summer heat, especially on a patch of land lacking the shade of trees.

“Oh my god, it’s unbearable,” Chris Rodriguez, an activist who manages Down Bottom Farms, said of the heat. Her crew of local youth often rises early so they can quit working by noon.

“After that it gets too hot and we can’t work here,” Rodriguez said.

New Jersey just experienced its second-hottest summer on record, yet another sign of how climate change has intensified temperatures across the Garden State. But people in urban areas — which tend to lack greenery to break up the concrete landscapes — are more regularly exposed to dangerous heat than folks in suburban and rural areas.

For Rodriguez and others working on Down Bottom Farms, working in such weather can pose serious health risks. For the low-income elderly residents living nearby, the heat can be a life-or-death hazard.

Looking back on the steamy summer, NJ Advance Media and Climate Central — a news and research group based in Princeton — examined how decades-old and inherently racist policies made some urban areas as much as 20 degrees hotter than the surrounding suburbs.

Deadlier heat waves coming

Decades of burning fossil fuels have increased the amount of heat-trapping gases, like carbon dioxide and methane, in the Earth’s atmosphere. This has caused average temperatures around the planet to steadily rise, and New Jersey is no exception.

The state’s daily average temperature in the months of June, July and August was 75.3 degrees Fahrenheit — making it the second hottest summer ever recorded in the Garden State, according to the Office of the New Jersey State Climatologist.

This is not new. The Garden State’s average annual temperature has already increased 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1895, according to a report released by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection in June. By 2050, that increase could double.

The rising heat could mean thousands of deaths in New Jersey, according to new research led by Drew Shindell of Duke University. Shindell found that excessive heat already kills around 12,000 Americans annually — about as many as gun homicides — with that number projected to increase rapidly if climate change is unabated.

In New Jersey, Shindell’s estimate equates to 445 deaths a year now, rising to 3,560 a year at the end of the century, if nothing is done to slow climate change.

Climate change is expected to increase the annual number of heat-related deaths in New Jersey. Graphic by Climate Central

Down on the farm

The Ironbound site of Down Bottom Farms, at the corner of Ferry and St. Charles Streets, is surrounded by a largely working-class immigrant population. It’s an area Rodriguez describes as “forgotten” because it’s not picturesque, and lacks the iconic restaurants of the stretch of Ferry Street just to the west.

The neighborhood is packed with black-top and concrete, transitioning from residential to industrial. Trees, or any greenery for that matter, are hard to find. That environment amplifies the area’s temperature, often contributing to sweltering heat in the summer.

The problem, called the urban heat island effect, was documented in New Jersey cities 15 years ago by Greg Pope, now Department Chair of Earth and Environmental Studies at Montclair State University.

“It mainly has to do with the lack of vegetation,” Pope said. “What happens with an urban heat island, the urban surfaces, like pavement, cement and brick, and rooftops, they do a better job of absorbing heat during the day and then releasing it at night.”

The problem extends throughout the neighborhood, according to Rodriguez, who grew up nearby at the Newark Housing Authority’s Hyatt Court complex and lives in the Ironbound today. She said the heat difference is noticeable even within the city, pointing out that leafy Branch Brook Park and surrounding areas in the North Ward typically feel cooler than her part of the city.

“Here we don’t have that, so it gets unbearably hot,” Rodriguez said. “You’re sweating, probably, walking a couple of feet.”

Recent research links the Ironbound’s problem to historically racist urban planning measures.

In the 1930s and ’40s, federal housing officials published maps showing where banks should make loans, starting the process of “redlining” neighborhoods with predominantly Black and immigrant populations, said Jeremy Hoffman of the Science Museum of Virginia. Those neighborhoods ended up with fewer trees, more pavement, and less public investment.

Essex County was one of the places mapped, and the Ironbound became one of those redlined neighborhoods. The area was described by federal officials in 1939 as a slum, and categorized as hazardous.

Over the decades, residents of redlined areas — denied the opportunity of home ownership — could not gain the economic and political power to improve their surroundings, Hoffman said. Often, local governments instead focused amenities on “better” neighborhoods with single-family houses.

“It’s really an 80-year story of denying the ability to gain generational wealth,” Hoffman said.

His team of researchers paired redlining maps of 108 American communities — including Atlantic City, Camden, Trenton and parts of North Jersey in the greater New York City area — with maps showing where summer heat hits hardest today. The connection was unmistakable, with redlined neighborhoods an average of almost four degrees hotter on average, and in some cases 17 degrees hotter, even in the same city.

Hoffman said decades of disinvestment and discriminatory planning left minority neighborhoods sweltering while wealthier areas cooled with parks, grass and shady trees.

“Even without climate change, these areas of our cities would already be warmer,” Hoffman said.

Those who suffer most

Nationally, over 80% of heat deaths are people over 60.

Cities across the country have been working to keep senior citizens safe during heat waves by opening cooling centers (trickier to operate during a pandemic), distributing free air conditioners and even by dispatching teams of nurses to check on them. Poverty is the biggest challenge.

Clinton Andrews, director of the Rutgers University Center for Green Building, said that seniors in low-income areas may not be able to afford to run their air conditioners.

“People should know that heat deaths are also deaths of isolation, and when the weather gets very warm, everyone should reach out to older and more vulnerable people,” said Eric Klinenberg, a sociologist at New York University.

Andrews' research team at Rutgers placed heat sensors in 24 senior apartments in public housing complexes in Elizabeth, just south of Newark, to learn how housing quality and elder behavior would affect their safety. The 2017 research was published this year.

The team chose to study Elizabeth because it suffers from a severe urban heat island effect and some of the state’s worst air quality, thanks to the nearby port, Newark Liberty International Airport, Bayway refinery and the New Jersey Turnpike.

“It’s a place where the trade-offs and the health threats are pretty constant and severe,” Andrews said. “You want to open the window to cool off, and the air isn’t very good out there.”

Elizabeth’s hot neighborhoods also reflect past racial redlining, according to research by Groundwork Elizabeth, a community non-profit, which worked with NASA scientists. They published a website that overlays the old redline maps with the heat affecting the city today, helping to highlight stubborn injustices.

The Rutgers study found that modern buildings with central air conditioning were safer for seniors. More surprisingly, older buildings designed with cross ventilation and outdoor shade worked well, too. And seniors with pets were among those who handled the heat best.

Andrews said pets help because they get seniors outdoors more, walking their dogs and meeting people, and visiting shady parks.

The Rutgers study found that modern buildings with central air conditioning were safer for seniors. More surprisingly, older buildings designed with cross ventilation and outdoor shade worked well, too. And seniors with pets were among those who handled the heat best.

Andrews said pets help because they get seniors outdoors more, walking their dogs and meeting people, and visiting shady parks.

“If it’s not a dog, then they have families who live nearby who come and take them to the mall or do something like that,” Andrews said. “There is a fair amount of sociability among the residents, more so in the sites that have good common areas.”

Green space and other solutions

Back in Newark, Down Bottom Farms brings life to the area, serving to educate youth about nurturing plants and offering a space that hosts farmers markets and community events.

“It’s more of a community space than anything, because we don’t have that. We don’t have that in this neighborhood,” Rodriguez said. “We don’t have a space where we can just go all come together in one area and have fun.”

Pope, from Montclair State, said turning an empty lot into a green space, like Down Bottom Farms, can even reduce energy costs for surrounding residents. The cooling effect of the greenery spills over to nearby buildings, so they don’t need to run the air conditioner as much.

But the heat still lingers at the farm, which offers little shade beyond a handful of trees at one edge of the property. Rodriguez said loads of wood chips spread on the lot has helped cool things a little, but that only helps so much.

Down Bottom Farms, an urban farm operated by the Ironbound Community Corporation in Newark's Ironbound neighborhood. September 21, 2020. Michael Sol Warren | NJ Advance Media for

Rodriguez wonders how much the city cares about the lack of trees in her part of the Ironbound. She noted an abandoned building on a small plot at 520-526 Ferry Street, and said ICC and community members lobbied to have the property turned into a small park with a few trees. Instead, the city allowed a plan to redevelop the lot into a four-story apartment building to move forward, according to a JerseyDigs report.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, speaking to NJ Advance Media at an unrelated event, said the city understands the importance of green space and tree cover in fighting the heat. He noted an effort to construct more “pocket parks” in Newark, where possible.

“It’s hard to do it in the Ironbound, because it’s so dense and there’s not really a lot of space to do that,” Baraka said. “So what we have to do is try to plant more trees down here.”

Nathaly Agosto Filión, Newark’s Chief Sustainability Officer, said the city is exploring a number of ways to deal with rising temperatures. That includes finding new surfaces for turf playing fields that stay cooler, and replicating a program in New York City that has given away thousands of free air conditioners to low-income elderly residents this summer.

Agosto Filión said the city’s strategy for planting more trees focuses on streets where the city owns the right-of-way. One issue the city has seen, she said, is that developers sometimes plant trees but then fail to care for them. To combat this, she said the city is considering adopting rules that would require any developer that plants a tree on the street to care for it for at least the first year.

But, Agosto Filión warned, there’s only so much the city can do on its own in the face of climate change.

Research shows that heating caused by climate change could make today’s hottest summers seem relatively mild in years to come, as Baby Boomers become the next generation of vulnerable seniors. Without global efforts to counter the threat, local solutions such as street trees may not be enough.

“We’re really trying to do what we can at the local level, but at the end of the day this fight has to be more than that,” Agosto Filión said.

This story was produced through a partnership between Climate Central, a non-advocacy research and news group based in Princeton, and NJ Advance Media.

Michael Sol Warren may be reached at

Charles Wohlforth may be reached at