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How adaptable you are to climate change could depend on where you live in Edmonton

How climate change affects your health could depend on where you live, according to a new study. 

In their examination of several Edmonton neighbourhoods, researchers at the University of Alberta mapped out which communities — and the people living in them — were most vulnerable to climate change. 

“Bringing climate health into climate change conversations then ratchets up that conversation and the importance of it, when we talk about addressing it and how quickly we have to address it,” said Shelby Yamamoto, lead researcher on the project by the Climate Health and Environment Epidemiology Research (CHEER) group. 

The team combed through data gathered from several sources, including the Canadian census, Alberta Health Services, Parks Canada and Environment Canada. 

Sammy Lowe, CHEER lab research lead, said climate change is becoming more of an issue, especially when it comes to effects like unpredictable temperature and air pollution.

“And we can see those impacts on our health today,” Lowe said. 

“We think it’s important to understand how those environmental factors impact those of us in the city,” said Lowe. “It’s really going to vary depending on where you live.”

Defining vulnerability

For the study, vulnerability is defined by a simple equation including three main components: exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity.

Exposure is the level of things like air pollutants, heat, precipitation and smog. 

Sensitivity looks at the demographic breakdown of a neighbourhood, looking at whether there are older adults or younger children, who are at higher risk to the impacts of climate change. 

Adaptive capacity is the availability of things like green spaces, bodies of water and health services. 

Regardless of how much exposure and how sensitive a population may be, if a neighbourhood scores high on adaptive capacity, that will lessen its vulnerability.

Low vulnerability neighbourhood: downtown 

Downtown Edmonton scored low on the vulnerability equation because the population is more adaptable and there’s a surprising amount of green spaces and health services in the neighbourhood. 

“The river valley is actually one of those main reasons, so we have this big body of water as well as all of this kind of greenness and growth in really close proximity to where these people are living downtown,” said Lowe. 

This finding bucks the trend of some research that looks at urban heat islands, but Lowe says that’s because they’re looking specifically if the neighbourhood can adapt to the changing climate. 

Lowe points to varying wind patterns, larger trees and bigger buildings that can help block smog and heat. 

Because the demographic downtown is young adults, and few children and elderly people, they are a less sensitive population, Lowe said. 

South Edmonton community vulnerable to climate change 

One noticeable trend is that areas on the edge of the city scored poorly on climate vulnerability. 

Summerside, a neighbourhood in south Edmonton, scored low because it lacks green space and because it has lots of children and older people. 

“The active living and the walkability score that I mentioned earlier, it’s much lower here,” Lowe said. “That’s pretty common in newer areas, especially suburban areas that are often designed to be a lot more car-friendly and maybe don’t have as up-to-date transit coverage.”

Lowe says neighbourhoods like Summerside attract young diverse families and older people — groups that may rely more on medical services when it comes to health complications brought on by climate change. 

“If they need to access … health services, they’re having to travel to adjacent or potentially far away neighbourhoods just to get that same care that somebody downtown could walk across the street and get,” said Lowe. 

A big downside to neighbourhoods like Summerside is that the landscaping doesn’t offer much reprieve from the heat. 

“A well-manicured suburban lawn, while it can look quite lovely, doesn’t really do much to mitigate your health because we’re really looking at kind of those bigger trees and those structures that can provide the shade and the cooling,” said Lowe. 

The team says for the most part, Edmonton neighbourhoods are adaptable to climate change, and Yamamoto says the project isn’t meant to single out any particular neighbourhood. 

Woman wearing glasses, a black and white top, and a black sweater, standing in front of building with lots of windows. There is a row of shrubs and trees behind her.
Shelby Yamamoto, lead researcher on the CHEER climate vulnerability project, says the impacts of climate change go much further than people expect. (David Bajer/CBC)

“What we’re trying to do is give a sense of which neighbourhoods could we potentially target earlier or might be in need of interventions earlier on that we could address.” 

The team has shared its research with the City of Edmonton, which declared a climate emergency in 2019, and pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit global warming. 

Currently the city is seeking recommendations from residents on how best to mitigate the effects of climate change to help finalize its Climate Resilience Planning and Development Action Plan. 

“Identifying climate risks and vulnerabilities unique to any specific community may be valuable in developing localized climate resilience plans,” said Sincy Modayil, senior environmental engineer with the city, in a statement to CBC News. 

Replicating the project in other cities 

The Edmonton map was a pilot project, and the team plans to expand the project to the rest of the province.

But incorporating rural communities comes with its own challenges, like accounting for crops or farmlands, versus dense roadways in cities. 

“Just being able to sort of swap in and swap out different variables and factors that are going to be more relevant for urban areas versus rural areas … I think is something that we’re grappling with and something that we’re still working on with our index,” said Yamamoto. 

Right now the map is static, and looks at data gathered from a specific point in time, but Yamamoto says she would like the map to be more dynamic, by including real-time data, like weather conditions, climate models, or smoke conditions from wildfires. 

“What we’re hoping to do is to develop it into something that can be a little bit more dynamic, more like a surveillance kind of approach, [where] the data is regularly updated,” said Yamamoto. 

“People are looking ahead and projecting into the future. This map doesn’t do that yet.” 

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