(This article has been updated.)
At the beginning of this week, the City of Hamilton's health department unilaterally cancelled its heat alert program (apparently in violation of its own process change policy), claiming that the heat alerts were ineffective and unwarranted.
The public response was uniformily outraged. Angry letters started pouring forth and poverty activists cried foul. The Hamilton Spectator editors, who recognize a safe rhetorical stance when they see one, came out swinging:
It's still important to issue public reminders that people should drink plenty of fluids, not leave children in parked cars, stay out of the sun and avoid strenuous activities. But that's nowhere near enough.
After an embarrassing few days of unremitting criticism, the health department reinstated the program, albeit maintaining callously that the dangers of extreme heat in the city may be overstated.
In an email to city councillors, Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, the city's tepid Medical Officer of Health, argued that Hamilton does not "have the same level of safety concerns" as those people who died during the notorious 1995 heat wave that killed hundreds of people in Chicago.
(Dr. Richardson has a history of hiding behind inertial skepticism over public health dangers. Part of the reason the city still doesn't have a decent policy on cosmetic pesticides, for example, is that the health department is unwilling to commit to the conclusion that pesticides are dangerous for human health, despite the fact that numerous reports by medical associations, including an exhaustive study by the Ontario College of Family Physicians, have found positive relationships between pesticide use and illnesses including brain cancer, childhood leukemia, and amyelotropic lateral sclerosis, and support municipal bans on cosmetic pesticide use.)But notwithstanding Dr. Richardson's reticence, let me break ranks for a moment and come to the health department's defence. They're right about one thing: as Hamilton's heat alerts are currently issued, they really are ineffective. The alerts don't get to the people who need to heed them the most, and they don't trigger any changes in public policy to help people address the danger of extreme heat.
When the health department issues a heat alert, the following should happen as a minimum:
Currently, Hamilton does none of these things. There's an organization in the city that can establish a proper response to extreme heat, and that organization is City Council, which ultimately controls the purse strings and decides what's worth funding.
While it's true that the health department's decision was as clumsy as it was callous, there's no question that the move got people's attention. Councillor Sam Merulla (Ward 4) is openly calling for the city to establish a comprehensive heat program.
In a more general sense, the city needs to have a good think about how to arrange our neighbourhoods in the safest manner possible. With global energy supplies going into decline, it's going to be harder and more expensive to keep the air conditioners running in each individual home, so we will have to start cooperating to stay alive and safe.
After the fatal 1995 Chicago heat wave that killed hundreds of residents, mostly isolated poor people, a young sociologist named Eric Klinenberg studied two adjacent neighbourhoods that had similar socioeconomic patterns but highly divergent death rates.
He found that North Lawndale, which had a high death rate, also had a high separation of uses between homes and businesses and very little street life. Residents had few social contacts and were fearful of leaving their homes or of opening the door to volunteers. They literally died holed up in isolation in their homes.
In South Lawndale, by contrast, homes and businesses were mixed closely and street life was very social. Residents left their homes readily and went to local air-conditioned shops, libraries, and the homes of family and friends to bear the heat more safely.
As Klinenberg described it, the neighbourhood had "high population density, busy commercial life in the streets, and vibrant public spaces," which dramatically lowered the death rate.
As Hamilton heads into a long era of more frequent and more severe heat waves, we desperately need to re-think the way we arrange our neighbourhoods and civic amenities. Many lives will depend on creating the "vibrant public spaces" that served the residents of South Lawndale so heroically in 1995.
Update: This article originally reported that Sam Merulla was the councillor for Ward 3. He is actually the councillor for Ward 4. Jump to the changed section.
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