Long Beach’s extreme heat mitigation programs protect vulnerable residents now and in the future

Sep 15, 2021

Climate change disproportionality affects historically vulnerable and marginalized populations. The City of Long Beach’s inclusive heat mitigation program addresses current needs and hardens these high-risk communities.

According to the City of Long Beach’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, extreme heat may be the greatest climate-related health threat to its residents in the coming decades. Extreme heat events disproportionately impact vulnerable or historically marginalized populations, such as young children, the elderly, people with respiratory diseases and physical disabilities, and outdoor workers. Low-income households — which already spend a higher proportion of their income on utilities and may live in energy inefficient, substandard housing — are also more at risk.

According to an analysis of 2010 U.S. Census and Climate Smart Cities Los Angeles data, at least 275,000 Long Beach residents live within areas that are highly vulnerable to extreme heat. As temperatures and the number of extreme heat days (>95°F) rise, this population will likely increase. Concerned about the impact of climate change on its residents, the city set out to implement new initiatives and strengthen existing programs to address extreme heat now and, in the future, with a specific focus on protecting vulnerable populations.

I Dig Long Beach

Through the “I Dig Long Beach” initiative the city’s Department of Development Services partners with neighborhood associations, community groups, and hundreds of volunteers to plant, water, and care for new street trees in various neighborhoods. The initiative — which began in 2012 with funding from the Port of Long Beach — started with a goal of planting 6,000 trees by 2020. Funding from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection allowed the initiative to expand to 10,000 trees by 2022.

“Our community tree plantings help cool a neighborhood’s temperatures,” said Long Beach Community Development Analyst Jim Osgood. “As our trees mature and grow, their canopies help to block heat. These trees lower surface and air temperatures by providing shade and through evapotranspiration.” 

Between 50 and 100 street trees are typically planted per neighborhood volunteer event. On average, 80% are planted in disadvantaged communities. Planting and caring for trees in this way sparks community pride, connects residents, and fosters neighborhood cohesion. It can also help reduce crime and promote skills that lead to jobs.

Long Beach sustainability tree planting program

With the main goal of growing an urban forest and developing urban cooling strategies, the city’s Office of Sustainability oversees an at-request, no-cost, tree planting program. Put into place 10 years ago, the tree planting program is available to any Long Beach property owner who requests a tree in the parkway adjacent to their property. The program also trains local youth to perform paid fieldwork through the plantings.

“It has been a rewarding experience to help the growth of Long Beach’s urban forest canopy,” said Office of Sustainability Field Team Youth Worker Natalie Pistole. “Going to interact with residents and make direct contact with the soil has given me a deeper understanding of what the phrase ‘urban ecosystem’ can mean.”

Since 2011, the Office of Sustainability has planted about 230 street trees in Long Beach parkways each year and aims to double this rate of planting over the next two years.

“While trees provide so many benefits when fighting climate change and its impacts, like increased urban heat, they are also excellent educational tools. The experience of planting a tree provides an opportunity for our youth workers to engage and connect with nature while making a positive impact on their local community,” said Sustainability Coordinator Larry Rich.

Heat illness prevention campaign

The city’s heat mitigation strategy goes beyond planting trees. The Long Beach Department of Health and Human Services also launched a heat illness prevention campaign in partnership with organizations from the Long Beach Aging Services Collaborative. Early in the pandemic, as hotter weather approached, an ad-hoc committee was formed from interested internal and external stakeholders serving the older adult population in Long Beach. This group identified four strategies to help reduce heat illness in older adults, including increasing access to cooling centers.

They also created a stakeholder survey so that aging service providers could share their knowledge about extreme heat safety issues within the older adult community, including barriers to keeping seniors safe. The results were used to create a community education handout, an effort that was led by the Senior Services Program at the LGBTQ Center in Long Beach. Handouts were reviewed and endorsed by members of the Long Beach Aging Services Collaborative before being distributed by partners and through food distribution events at the Senior Center. Additionally, the Long Beach Water Department provided water bottles for distribution to over 200 older adults.

Cooling center access

When the COVID-19 health order closed many indoor facilities, older adults were suddenly without access to familiar air-conditioned spaces, such as libraries, movie theaters, shopping malls, and religious institutions. To ensure that seniors had a safe place to escape the heat, the Long Beach Department of Health and Human Services partnered with the Parks, Recreation, and Marine Department to increase access to city-operated cooling centers. These centers adhered to public health requirements to ensure that older adults who are most at-risk for heat illness and COVID-19 could remain safe and supported.

The selected sites were located primarily in lower-income neighborhoods throughout the city, with an additional site located on the east side, where a significant population of older adults resides. The Health Officer also activated the sites at a lower heat threshold and the Parks, Recreation, and Marine Department remained open after normal business hours to accommodate residents. 

Five of the City’s Community Centers were open for a total of 24 days between August to November 2020, serving more than 340 residents. Over 90% of visitors who elected to share their demographic information were over the age of 50.

City staff noted that visitors expressed appreciation for the cooling centers being open, as several of them were living in their cars and had nowhere else to go to beat the heat. 

Age Group  Percent of visitors per Age Group  Per 1,000 Residents 
18-29  0.6  0.008 
30-49  7.0  0.086 
50-64  34.9  0.700 
65-79  52.3  2.289 
80+  5.2  0.669 


The City of Long Beach has become a leader in climate mitigation and adaptation planning. Moreover, their inclusive heat mitigation strategies work to protect its entire community, especially residents disproportionately impacted by climate change. 

The Cal Cities #LocalWorks initiative shines the spotlight on examples of local actions that are making a difference to their communities. Show how #LocalWorks in your community by contacting communications@calcities.org.