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Walking in the rain

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Thursday Nov 6, 2014

Kuras in Union Park. Photo by Michele D. Maniscalco.
Kuras in Union Park. Photo by Michele D. Maniscalco.  

BU grad discusses weather's human effects on temperature tour

As the finale of his month-long return to Boston to present the results of his Individually Experienced Temperature study, 2014 Boston University graduate Evan Kuras guided two walks through the neighborhood on Saturday, November 1 and Sunday, November 2 to discuss how temperature and weather conditions are experienced by people according to their surroundings. Kuras's South End temperature study took place in July, 2013, when he had 23 volunteers carry temperature sensors and record their impressions of temperature, humidity and other conditions for one week. Coincidentally, that week occurred at the end of a heat wave in Boston. Kuras invited study participants, community leaders and neighbors to join him on his walking tours. This writer, a participant in the 2013 study, joined him on Saturday's walk. Saturday's tour drew six attendees, including local historians Stacen Goldman, director of the South End Historical Society, and Alison Barnet, author of the South End News column, "South End Character" and a book of the same name, and Sunday's walk also drew six hardy souls in similarly cold, wet weather. Asked whether the cold, rainy weather dampened attendance, Kuras said, "As far as the weather backdrop, I can't complain. I did receive a few emails from people that planned to come on Sunday but preferred to stay inside so that's too bad. And as a temperature researcher, I would say that is the healthy decision! When you study ecology or anything outside, the weather is just part of the game." Kuras hopes to get people thinking about the effect weather has on their lives and focusing on strategies to help people young and old and of all socio-economic levels to get through temperature and weather events to come.

In interpreting the results of his study, Kuras considered the age, gender, length of residency in the neighborhood, housing type (subsidized vs. market-rate apartments) of his participants. He made a number of unexpected observations. For example, "People who lived in subsidized housing were warmer than people who lived in market-rate housing. There were interesting patterns, like the longer you lived here the warmer you were and the older you were, the warmer you were. About one third of my participants were black or African American and they were warmer than my participants who were white," Kuras said. "I totally missed out on all the Asian and Latino people who live here and that's unfortunate," he added.

The first stop on the walk was the McKinley School, which provides special programs for intellectually and emotionally challenged students. As part of its partnership with the school, the Haley House helped create a garden that is now part of the school's science curriculum and also provides produce for Haley House. Kuras worked with the students to identify and make a map of the warmest and coolest spots in the garden. "I wanted this to be an experience to get the kids to think about temperature and place differently," Kuras said.

The tour's next stop was Union Park, where Kuras elaborated on his concept of IE, or Individually Experienced temperature, which encompasses how the temperature, humidity, pollen level and other factors feel to the individual. As far as temperature goes, this is a park that helps the surrounding buildings lower their energy costs, and it's a shady street in general." Referring to the fact that Union Park is kept locked and the controversy surrounding that, Kuras added that "it is not the kind of park where you can hang out under a shade tree."

Practical matters such as how people's living spaces affect their experience of temperature, the consequences for residents of how their housing affects their experience of heat and cold and how people adapt to weather events such as heat waves and cold spells sparked a lively exchange. Goldman pointed out that the South End "clearly was a planned as a row house neighborhood, and they made a whole series of decisions on how people would interact with the environment. Now that you have air conditioning, people will feel more inclined to create more cut-off spaces." Kuras talked about two schools of thought in environmentally sensitive design: one group who emphasize designing to reduce the need for climate control and that emphasizes "resilience" and the need to store power to reduce the risk of power outages at times of high energy use, such as in heat waves. Kuras recalled the heat wave that swept Europe in 2003, bringing with it temperatures above 100 degrees for days, power outages and approximately 7,000 deaths, with a high toll among elders who perished when air conditioning failed.

At the Blackstone Community Center (BCC), Youth Advocate Tany Lopes escorted the group to the center's pool and described BCC's use as one of the city's official cooling centers during heat waves as well as the traffic it draws during hot weather in general. Kuras explained that BCC is an official cooling center for the city of Boston, activated during a National Weather Service heat watch or heat warning as a place for people without access to air conditioning to keep cool. Lopes recounted that during a heat wave about two years ago, a few seniors came in and BCC staff showed movies to entertain them, while many others "packed into the pool like sardines," Lopes said.

Kuras skipped the planned stop at Blackstone Square due to time, but discussed the neighborhood's green spaces as outdoor cooling resources over refreshments back at Haley House after the walk. He said, "When we think about making spaces that are cool, we don't want them to be so sunny, we want people to be able to take refuge in the shade. When it's really hot, it's terrible in Blackstone Square because there is always one bench that is in the shade and someone is always sitting on it." Kuras also observed that many of the benches in parks and at bus stops have dividers to discourage people from sleeping there and discussed conflicting views on the proper uses of neighborhood open spaces: for recreation, for socializing, and among some neighbors, for sleeping and other basic living functions.

Kuras's research does not have a purely scientific and technological purpose, but a social mission as well. According to Kuras, one of the participants in Sunday's walk was an employee of Boston Health Care for the Homeless. Citing the wealth of programs and activities for all ages at BCC, he said, "These are resources that bring people together, whether you take a class with someone and become friends with them or become friends at the senior lunch group." He continued, "People really value diversity here. I hear people saying when they go to an event, 'It was so great because there were so many different types of people there. It's something that people are very proud of. Different types of people are able to stay because of all the services we have here."