Upgrading cooling centers

What is a cooling center?  How are they changing? What does such a thing have to do with higher ed?

Cooling centers are shaded, enclosed, and obviously cooler spaces for people to shelter in during bad heat waves. Colleges and universities afflicted by problematic heat should consider building some, or renovating current spaces to serve that purpose, as I’ve written previously.  Some campuses already do so.  The key point is that as climate change increases temperatures, there will be greater need for such spaces.

cooling center by MultCo Communications

I wonder about the local community dimension here. What responsibility does a university have to provide cooling for its neighbors?  And can academics depend on the locality to provide off-campus shelter when their institution doesn’t offer enough?

Yet this question, aimed as it is into the future, might be already out of date.  Axios reports that some cities have upgraded their cooling centers into something more than a place to survive a heatwave.

Miami-Dade County is at the forefront with its mobile “resilience pod” made from a 40-foot shipping container. It debuted two years ago and offers people a chilled, solar-powered place to gather, with Wi-Fi, phone charging and a suite of solutions for “food insecurity” — including fruit trees for people to plant.

Tempe, Arizona, has budgeted $2.3 million for EnVision Tempe, a one-stop resource center that’ll have a big walk-in freezer and free ice — plus staffers who can help visitors find a job, GED classes, housing assistance, parenting programs, etc.

There’s even a new name for them: climate resilience hubs.

It’s a fascinating development. On the one hand we can see these hubs as, partly, cooling centers with 21st century infrastructure and/or amenities: internet access, electrical power, ice.  They sound a bit like a hotel in that way. On the other, they recognize the climate crisis with their use of solar power and basic agriculture. This shows the possibility of local support structures failing while offering non-carbon-dioxide-based services.  Which is why there are social services in the EnVision Tempe model.  Climate resilience hubs are hedges against a harder future.

As a futurist, I sometimes look to countervailing forces which a trend might elicit and/or work against.  Who wouldn’t want to build such a hub?  Well, to start with, a city or other entity who didn’t think they could afford it, from the initial cash outlay to maintenance to liabilities.  Or, as one friend put it, isn’t this the opposite of hostile architecture?  Some areas would happily use heat to drive away undesirables. In which case we might see climate resilience hubs appear as political markers indicating a certain attitude towards populations who can’t afford sufficient cooling, or at least as signs of wealth.

Let’s return to higher education.  Should campuses consider not merely old-fashioned cooling centers, but offering full on climate resilience hubs?

cooling center welcome sign_MultCo Communications

If my guesses about countervailing forces are right, some universities may offer hubs to indicate their politics and/or wealth.  Others may decline for precisely those reasons. Indeed, it would be bitterly ironic to see a school cut funding to its hub because it can no longer afford to maintain it for reasons based in climate change.

Much will depend on the individual nature of a given institution.  State-supported schools may be legally compelled (or strongly encouraged) to offer hubs, probably according to certain specifications, while others may be forbidden from doing so, depending on politics. A campus with a strong social service orientation might see a climate hub as a logical extension of its mission, while one with a hostile town-gown relationship might see a hub as too risky to set up and maintain. Community colleges might deem a hub as part of their local service nature, and this matches closely with what many community college libraries already do… yet we also know many community colleges have been suffering financially due to declining enrollment.

Institutions committed to social justice might see hub work as essential.  Back to the Axios report:

While “resilience hubs” are meant for everyone and all kinds of climate disasters, they’re particularly aimed at low-inc0me residents and people of color, who tend to suffer disproportionately as temperatures rise.

The idea is to meld the heat-relief imperative with social justice.

There’s already an example of this work being implemented some some academic involvement. Communities Responding to Extreme Weather (CREW) has been identifying hubs in public and academic libraries around the nation:

CREW hubs in US 2022

From the official description, they are education first, and other services second:

Climate Resilience Hubs are community institutions — libraries, churches, schools, nonprofits, local businesses and others — that help educate residents about extreme weather preparedness and other impacts of climate change. If they choose, hubs can also help residents respond to extreme weather events through material assistance. For instance, hubs can provide phone charging during a power outage, provide air conditioning during a heatwave, organize welfare checks on vulnerable neighbors, or deliver other services.


If they choose, hubs are also encouraged to work with local emergency managers and community partners to determine what additional services they might provide to the community. During a heat wave, for example, a Hub might open its doors to non-customers to stay cool, stay open later than usual, and have weather forecast information readily available.

We could also see climate resilience hubs as opportunities for academic work.  It’s not hard to imagine faculty researching them in various fields, from engineering to urban studies and social work. We could also see students working in them as part of service learning or a work college’s curriculum, either on-campus or off-. Perhaps a faculty-student collaboration could pitch a hub to senior leadership, then offer it.

One last thought.  These hubs are cooling centers’ second edition.  What does version 3.0 look like?  Would higher education take the lead in creating that new design?

(photos by MultCo Communications)

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