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Product, Service & Design Innovation
GAF Project Aims to Increase Quality of Life, Climate Resilience in Urban Communities

The GAF Cool Community Project will assess and mitigate the impacts of the urban heat island effect in landlocked and underserved cities — beginning with the Los Angeles neighborhood of Pacoima.

GAF, North America’s largest roofing and waterproofing manufacturer and a Standard Industries company, recently launched the GAF Cool Community Project — a pioneering initiative designed to assess and mitigate the impacts of the urban heat island effect. GAF has partnered with Climate Resolve, the Global Cool Cities Alliance, local community organizations and municipal government partners to conduct a multi-phased research project to better understand the impacts urban heat and cooling solutions have on the livability of the Los Angeles neighborhood of Pacoima.

Just north of downtown LA, Pacoima doesn’t get the moderating effect of the nearby ocean — leaving it a scorched inland inferno uniquely hotter than the surrounding region. Pacoima, like many underserved communities, suffers thermal inequities disparate from neighboring communities that are better equipped to face them.

The initiative will benchmark and monitor the surface and ambient air temperatures in the community and evaluate quality-of-life indices. Once a baseline is established, GAF will apply its StreetBond reflective pavement coating to a 10-square block area of Pacoima to better understand what cooling interventions can work at scale in a warming world.

The urban heat island effect

Urban temperatures are expected to skyrocket as the planet warms. Urban areas become islands of high temperatures exceeding that of outlying areas, with daytime temperatures ranging 1-7°F hotter than surrounding non-urban areas and nighttime temperatures 2-5°F warmer. This increases energy consumption — creating a sinister cycle of more emissions through energy expended for cooling, as well as heat-related illnesses and air quality issues.

The Earth’s surface reflects about 30 percent of sunlight back into the atmosphere. Albedo, the ability of a surface to reflect heat, is exceptionally low in the asphalt ubiquitous to urban areas — which only reflects 10 percent of sunlight. The remaining 90 percent is absorbed and re-emitted as heat throughout the day and well throughout the night. The more hard, unreflective surfaces an area has, the more heat is absorbed.

Scaling up solar-reflective solutions

GAF’s StreetBond reflective coatings can reflect upwards of 60 percent of sunlight, essentially bringing the solar budget back into balance with the Earth’s surface.

As Climate Resolve Executive Director Jonathan Parfrey told Sustainable Brands™, streets have been treated with reflective coatings in the past, but never at such a scale or concentration as the Cool Community Project proposes. This project is the first time coordinated, multi-tiered heat-mitigation solutions have been applied at a community scale.

“We're excited,” Parfrey said. “We would like to have a proof-of-concept and have other cities all across the United States come out to Pacoima and see what we've accomplished.”

Aside from applying reflective coating to asphalt and concrete, GAF and its partners will apply coatings to driveways, elementary school parking lots and playgrounds, a rec center and a park. An artist has even been commissioned to paint a mural with reflective coatings.

After surface coating is complete, a baseline will be established by comparing results in the community receiving interventions with that of a control community receiving none. They will look at empirical evidence — such as reduced ambient heat — as well as qualitative evidence, such as time spent playing outside and comfort levels.

Once baselines are established next year, the initiative will explore installing GAF cool roof products on buildings — as well as further engaging community stakeholders to explore other opportunities for heat mitigation, such as vegetation and shade structures.

“This is an important project that is relevant not just to big cities like LA, but cities all over the United States and the world,” said Jeff Terry, VP of Corporate Social Responsibility & Sustainability at GAF. “If we can help create examples and models of ways in which we can address climate, it’s an important project.”

Terry reported that many pilot projects have been done on a smaller scale, all of which have proved that surface coatings can improve cooling effects. This larger project ties together prior research, scaling it up, and adding a quality-of-life component measured across an entire suburb — the first time that layering of phases and social science segments has been done, Terry says.

Community engagement is key

Social justice and community engagement are key to the initiative's planning process. Urban communities hard hit by heat are often plagued by environmental justice issues, legacy redlining, poor funding and tax revenue, etc. This must be kept in account when investing in mitigation infrastructure, with the utmost care not to take a patronizing approach to CSR. The key to avoiding the latter is deep community ownership, said Maria Koetter, Executive Director of the Global Cool Cities Alliance.

“We don't want to just drop in, drop out; so, we build relationships with local nonprofits and community members that can be key stakeholders and champions of these projects,” Koetter said. “Having local partners is important in giving it validity.”

Koetter pointed to grassroots organizations as the frontrunning, sustainable drivers for meaningful climate resiliency. Climate Resolve has a long-running relationship with Pacoima and the surrounding neighborhoods. It recognized it needed more resources to scale effective cooling solutions in the Northeast Valley, so it was eager to partner with GAF and other community organizations dependent on community engagement. Understanding the value of a tribe, Climate Resolve in turn rallied Pacoima Beautiful and Urban Semillas to work as outreach partners for the project.

“It’s important to take a public-private approach in work like this,” Terry said. “We don’t think we can do this work by ourselves. It’s really about working and learning with others, so we can figure out the best solutions to bring forward … We’re not just interceding in their community for a year-and-a-half and leaving — we really want to work in partnership with the residents there.”

Avoiding cookie-cutter “solutions” to local climate crises is key, Parfrey said. Each climate solution must meet the needs of the community. For some communities, planting trees may be the most effective bet to hedge against extreme heat. But in California, where drought has killed 129 million trees in the last decade, tree planting may not deliver the best results. And though tree planting is an effective hedge against heat, that’s a 15-year proposition, Koetter pointed out — making short-term interventions such as reflective coatings necessary.

Though solutions can't be copy-and-pasted, Koetter believes the Cool Community Project will be instrumental as a data source to inspire local solutions for other communities.

“We hope other communities can look at this as a source for initiating their own work at scale,” she said. “This needs to advance through policy at a programmatic level. It shouldn't be a pilot — it should be a program. … That's how we'll really encourage communities to build resilience to heat.”