Turning Up The Heat

By Ryan McGreal
Published June 26, 2007

It's smokin' hot out there today, and the city's medical officer of health has issued a heat advisory notification for Tuesday, June 26.

In Hamilton, a heat advisory notification means the medical office of health issues a press release and invites hot Hamiltonians to call the city - 905-546-2489 during business hours - for "tips on coping with the heat and places to go to cool off".

Thanks for nothing, eh?

Actually, I'm not being fair. The medical office of health also provides a link to a Health Canada page with tips on how to deal with extreme heat.

Tips include taking a cool shower, resting in a shady area, and wearing a wide brimmed hat.

I guess that's helpful for people in Hamilton who have easy access to computers and Internet connections, but what about the people who have the most limited means and are actually the most at risk from extreme heat?

We can take a lesson painfully learned in Chicago in 1995 after a searing heat wave killed hundreds of people.

The people who died mainly lived in neighbourhoods characterized by separation of uses, limited street life, and social isolation.

Those who survived lived in neighbourhoods with "vibrant public spaces" according to Eric Klinenberg, the young sociologist who studied the phenomenon, and could turn to their neighbours for support and relief from the heat.

As Jane Jacobs summarized the report:

In South Lawndale, where a much higher proportion of the elderly survived, everything was diametrically different. There the elderly were accustomed to walking outside.

There were plenty of places for them to go on the district's bustling, crowded streets. They knew storekeepers and had no hesitation about hanging around in their air-conditioned spaces, where they also had access to water.

They felt secure about leaving their apartments, and they trusted those who came to check on them, some of whom they knew as acquaintances. In the crisis they were behaving much as they always did in this place with a lively, functioning community.

-- Jane Jacobs, Dark Age Ahead, Vintage Canada, 2005, pp. 83-4

The city can do much to foster and cultivate the kinds of communities that take care of their most vulnerable residents.

A real heat alert program is part of the solution, but only insofar as it is able to energize an existing constellation of support systems.

If those are absent, in a hollowed-out 'neighbourhood' that lacks basic civic amenities, then no heat alert program is likely to be able to reach out to the people who need it the most.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By Tom (registered) | Posted June 26, 2007 at 12:24:53

When the City line is called, staff does have a list of places that are open today to offer some cooling relief such as community and rec centres. Unfortunately, some of the recreation centres are quite a walk for seniors or people with disabilities.

After much angst with the Public Health Department's three-pronged recommendations around when to call heat alerts, the City's official heat response has been turned over to the Community Social Services Dept.

The Department is hoping to open two cooling centres (one on the Mountain and one in the lower City) and will look at offering free transit for vulnerable people to get to those locations (either HSR or taxi chits).

That won't happen until the "third level" alert -- which is an actual heat alert with one day of 45 degree humidex reading or three days of 40 degrees humidex in a row.

Today is just a heat advisory.

They go: 'heat advisory', 'heat warning', 'heat alert'.

Public Health seemed to have forgotten: 'heat caution', 'heat concern' and 'heat anxiety' (I'm being fictitious with the last three, but the present system is more than confusing).

Eric Klinenberg's book (which I’ve had on my desk for the past month as a resource) is an excellent read about social isolation, but also reveals how the municipal government couldn’t recognize a crisis was upon them and then were far too slow to respond to Chicago’s period of extreme heat…and remember it only took a few days.

Good news locally is that some community groups are doing fantastic work in the absence of much guidance from the municipality. Concerned residents in the Beasley neighbourhood are planning to open their own cooling centre. As they always do, Hamilton’s shelters and community health clinics will be responding with resolve to ensure vulnerable residents are provided with shelter and water.

Lets hope we get through today without too much discomfort for vulnerable people. But we still have an entire summer ahead.

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By Urban Oven (anonymous) | Posted June 26, 2007 at 13:37:44

It's &%$@ hot!
I read a guy from Environment Canada say that we've received 8 days with 30 plus temperatures so far this summer - 6 in June and 2 in May. Usually we get ten 30 degree days all year.
Keep cool cats!

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By hot-to-trot (anonymous) | Posted June 26, 2007 at 15:57:03

Is it just me or is our planet getting hotter?

Maybe someone should do some research into this...

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By jason (registered) | Posted June 26, 2007 at 17:58:34

i heard that today was the 11th day over 30. can we at least keep park sprinklers and pools open until 9 or 10 on days like this??
and can we scrap the whole 'advisory', 'alert', 'run for your lives''s hot out. I don't care if the humidex is 42 or 46. it doesn't really make a difference at this point.

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By appalbarry (registered) - website | Posted June 27, 2007 at 12:41:54

A first step might have been to open the city swimming pools this week instead of holding on until July 1st. A lot of sweltering kids would have appreciated it.

From where I'm sitting I can see 12 window air conditions. Perhaps it's time to mandate that new apartment construction include some more efficient kind of cooling?

A real surprise to me though was finding that some of the facilities that house the elderly in this town - I'm thinking of the Townsview Lifecare Centre on Mary Street - have NO cooling.

Townsview was sweltering a month ago. I can't imagine what it like to be trapped in there right now.

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