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Cities are Beautiful, But At What Cost?

New York City, with a population of 8.468 million, is easily the largest city in the Unites States, and one of the largest in the world. Its iconic skyline, with its skyscrapers and bridges, evokes awe in all those who see it. NYC’s structure, as beautiful as it may be, can also be harmful. Due to its concentrated buildings and pavement, NYC is susceptible to the urban heat island effect, a phenomenon in which an area with concentrated structures absorbs and reemits more of the sun’s heat than surrounding rural areas, thus creating a ‘heat island’. Consequently, because cities are already more susceptible to higher temperatures than other areas, action must be taken to mitigate that effect as green house gas emissions continue to increase the overall global temperature.

According to the The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the urban heat island effect makes the average temperature within a city 1-7 ℉ hotter during the day and 2-5 ℉ hotter during the night than surrounding rural areas. The EPA states, that within an urban area, there are many contributors to the heat island effect. Firstly, are dry structures, such as roads, buildings, parking lots, roofs and sidewalks that absorb heat during the day and slowly release it during the night. Secondly, there are human activities, such as driving and air conditioning.  Thirdly, there is the layout of the city; structures being obscured by others within their surrounding areas tend to absorb more heat and, because they are overshadowed, cannot release their heat efficiently, thus becoming “large thermal masses” .

As of 2020, as reported by Climate Central using the study, “Development of a holistic Urban Heat Island Methodology” by Valentino Sangiorgio,Francesco Fiorito, and Mattheos Santamouris (2020), the average Urban Heat Index per capita was highest in New York City, at 9.5 F. Although that is the average, temperatures can vary within the city depending on ‘the distribution of heat-absorbing buildings and pavements’ which in turn create “intra-urban heat islands’ or in other words, a heat island within a heat island. In other words, an area with greenery, such as Central Park in NYC will be cooler than an area with a bunch of buildings and pavement, such as Times Square. When measuring surface temperatures around my schools’ area, pavement had an average temperature of 18.4 ℃ and cement has an average of 17.63℃. Contrastingly, grass had an average temperature of 13℃ while dirt had one of 13.33℃. This coincides with the fact that infrastructure does indeed absorb more heat than natural surfaces. Given this, it is plausible to consider a positive feedback loop regarding air-conditioning.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), in 2001 77% of the U.S. used AC. In 2020 that number increased to 88%. As the climate gets hotter, more AC will be needed, with the increased use of AC will be an increased use of electricity and to meet that demand, more electric power will need to be generated. As of 2022, the EIA reports that 57% of the electric power sector was generated using fossil fuels. Unless we increase our use of renewable energy resources, the use of fossil fuels will only increase, and as that increases so will CO2 emissions and in turn the climate will continue to get hotter, and as previously stated, will be experienced to a higher degree within cities. Leading us right back to the increased use of AC, which is a contributor to the urban heat island effect.

According to the EPA, amongst the most vulnerable to the urban heat island effect are elderly people and young children. People who work outdoors will be at a higher risk of heat stroke and people who are already experiencing health challenges will be submitted to more uncomfortable conditions. The best way to reduce the impact of urban heating is by focusing on developing green infrastructure. This includes green roofs, using materials that absorb less heat, and incorporating more vegetation and greenery wherever possible. If we want to overcome the crisis that is global warming, we must make these the new standard as soon as possible, because unfortunately, when it comes to climate change, the clock is ticking.



United States Environmental Protection Agency. “Heat Island Impacts.” US EPA, 17 June 2014,


“Urban Heat Hot Spots | Climate Central.” Www.climatecentral.org, 26 July 2023,


US EPA, OAR. “Climate Change and Heat Islands.” US EPA, 17 June 2014,


“U.S. Energy Facts Explained – Consumption and Production – U.S. Energy Information

Administration (EIA).” Www.eia.gov, 16 Aug. 2023,


%20was%20102.92. Accessed 28 Oct. 2023.

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