During a hot day in Roanoke this summer, a small cluster of middle school students could be seen looking skyward at a hovering drone. With hands at their brows to shield themselves from the glare of the July sun, they watched as it took aerial images of the surrounding landscape. While from afar the students may have seemed like they were using their summer break to enjoy some amateur drone flying, they were, in fact, taking part in a two-week community engagement activity focused on building heat resilience in urban communities.

“More people in the United States die from heat than any other natural disaster,” noted Theo Lim, an assistant professor of urban affairs and planning in the School of Public and International Affairs and an affiliate of the Global Change Center. “And folks who live in areas of cities that have historically been marginalized suffer temperatures that can be 10 degress Fahrenheit hotter than other areas of the city.”

With climate change as a current threat across the globe, this disparity will only be exacerbated in the coming years.

“More and more cities are therefore looking at infrastructure investment, urban greening, and emergency response as ways to build more equitable extreme heat resilience capacity for communities,” Lim said.

Lim’s research focuses on green infrastructure planning, urban hydrology, water resource planning, and the linkages between land, water, infrastructure, and people. He is interested in studying these topics to help communities become more sustainable given limited natural resources and more resilient in the face of social and environmental change.

Max Dillon, currently a graduate student in the accelerated master’s program in urban and regional planning at Virginia Tech, has been working in the Lim Lab since he was an undergraduate and jumped at the opportunity to engage with local students.

“The hope is that this learning experience provides a few tools to make small-scale changes and equip young leaders with the knowledge to spread awareness about the issue throughout their communities to catalyze citywide action,” Dillon said.

Lim and Thomas Pingel, associate professor of geography in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, were recently awarded support through the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment Scholars Program for their project, "Engaging Vulnerable Populations in Extreme Heat Resilience Planning through Citizen Science and Co-Production of Knowledge." Together, they aim to test different methods to measure temperature and “thermal comfort,” that is an individual’s overall satisfaction with the environmental temperature.

Because extremes in temperatures are potentially life-threatening, “more and more cities are deploying sensor networks and collecting higher resolution data that quantify the environment,” said Lim. “We decided to work with youth to see how they understand these data and sensing systems, and to see if and how it motivates them to improve the thermal comfort and heat resiliency of their neighborhoods and communities.”   

In order to do this, Lim worked with STEM Director for Roanoke City Public Schools Tom Fitzpatrick, James R Breckinridge Middle School teacher Angelo Bonilla, and Associate Professor Bev Wilson of The University of Virginia. Together, they developed a two-week intensive science-action curriculum focused on collecting urban temperature and thermal comfort data, and making proposals for cooling exceptionally hot areas of the city.

“The two weeks were designed to enable students to develop plans that would make their neighborhoods more resilient to extreme heat,” said Lim.

Two images side by side. One shows a heat map, the other shows a sidewalk and students.
Drone-captured thermal imagery. Students were intrigued by the pavement and how its temperature increases significantly throughout the day. Photo by Theo Lim for Virginia Tech.

Using Google Maps and Street View, students were able to develop hypotheses about temperatures and then compare their estimates to outside temperatures using handheld sensors and infrared cameras.

When asked about the students, Dillon said, “They found it very interesting to see that the pavement outside of one of the school’s entrances significantly increased over the course of the day.”

Students and facilitators together were able to share how heat impacts their daily lives and imagine how their neighborhoods could be improved for safer outdoor activities.

“This engagement activity allowed us to collect information about how environmental data, land cover, and surface/air temperatures can be translated into citizen participation and capacity building around urban extreme heat resilience,” said Lim.

As for the future, Lim intends to continue to engage with Roanoke-area communities and study how data are actually used in democratic, participatory decision-making, regardless of age.

— Written by Heather Drew

Share this story