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Peter Skosey, executive vice president of the Metropolitan Planning Council, addresses area planners about resilient infastructure Wednesday.

Welcome to the concrete jungle: assessing threats to public health from climate change

by Julie Davis
May 15, 2013

While Chicago residents have enjoyed warmer weather this week, public health officials are developing plans for dealing with the extreme heat events growing more common as a result of climate change.

Public health and regional experts from ComEd and the University of Chicago met Wednesday at the Metropolitan Planning Council to discuss how cities can use infrastructure to respond to both natural and manmade crisis events – a concept planners refer to as resilience.

“Resiliency is really about how a region and a city not only responds to those crises and continues to operate through them, but also bounces back after they occur,” said Peter Skosey, event moderator and executive vice president of the Metropolitan Planning Council.

Stephen Konya, chief of staff for the Illinois Department of Public Health, said that people tend not to consider public health when talking about resilient infrastructure, but responding to crisis in a key focus of public health departments.

One regional initiative to address resilience in public health is called BRACE -- Building Resilience Against Climate Effects. The project is a collaboration between the state Department of Public Health and the University of Illinois at Chicago and is funded through a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The effects of climate change impact public health in a number of ways including heat-related illnesses, extreme weather events and indirectly in rates of asthma and allergies.

These effects can be mitigated through various stages of intervention. Taking the example of extreme heat, primary intervention techniques address projects that can be done prior to a crisis. It could be the implementation of green roofs, increasing the tree canopy, or fortifying power grids to combat the effects of heat.

Secondary prevention addresses what can be done during a crisis to prevent illness. This form of prevention would take the form of maintaining a “check up on the neighbor” system within existing urban social networks or setting up cooling centers.

Social intervention can also take more data driven forms. The City of Chicago has begun using social media outlets such as Twitter to track 311 calls. “Resiliency can also be lots and lots of feedback loops,” said John Tolva, Chicago's chief technology officer.

Tertiary prevention addresses what cities do after people begin to experience heat related illnesses. This includes preparing emergency responders and hospitals to better respond in times of crisis.

The BRACE project will address each of these kinds of intervention over the next four years. By the end of the program, the team will produce an implementation plan to guide communities in preparing for the public health impacts of climate change.