A team of UT Professors is researching how climate affects people on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis. Kelsey Ellis, assistant professor of geography, teamed up with Jon Hathaway, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Lisa Reyes Mason, assistant professor of social work, to collect weather data from urban Knoxville neighborhoods in order to create a more informed public and to improve future city planning. They placed ten weather sensors to power poles in July 2014 in Lonsdale, Burlington, West Hills, Vestal, downtown Gay Street, and Ijams Nature Center, that capture temperature, humidity, air pollution, and wind data. Over the past year, students took care of the sensors and collected data using thumb drives. The team is currently analyzing the data.
Trees are a large focus of the project, as they are known to boost air quality, provide shade, and keep neighborhoods cool. Poorer neighborhoods usually have less vegetation so residents are exposed to more extreme heat compared to other, more affluent, areas. Accessing and assessing data on a smaller scale will enable residents to have more accurate information as well as enable city planners to see what works and what doesn’t, and where changes need to be made. “Often data access only happens at the city level, so all residents would typically use information coming from the airport,” Ellis said. “Neighborhood-specific information will highlight the differences within the city, identify potential vulnerability issues, and provide city leaders a mechanism for improving these conditions.”
The information is useful on more than just a city planning level. They hope to create an app or website for residents to share this data with the public as well. Residents will be able to check heat indexes, air pollution, and temperature information specific to their neighborhoods. They’ll be able to make better informed decisions on when it’s safe for their children to play outside, when they should cut the grass, how to manage their gardens, etc.
Preliminary data shows that downtown Knoxville and neighborhoods with less tree cover were warmer than any other part of town. It also reveals that while trees kept neighborhoods cooler during the day, they didn’t cool neighborhoods at night as expected because of black ground surfaces that absorbed heat. Students also conducted interviews with residents of some of these neighborhoods to explore perceptions of neighborhood environmental conditions and how they are experienced or impact people’s everyday lives. Mason said that in the neighborhoods they interviewed “green space was valued and connected to different aspects of well-being.”
The first two years of the project have been funded by UT Institute for a Secure and Sustainable Environment (ISSE). The team has applied for a National Science Foundation grant to expand their work – potentially nationwide. They are working on the app and website, and building a second generation of sensors that hopes to collect noise pollution data as well. They aim to do more than other microclimate studies that came before them by applying their results. Ellis emphasizes, “We want to help improve conditions in more vulnerable neighborhoods and inform residents of their potential risk and what they should do about it.”