This summer marked the Earth’s hottest on record.

The Roanoke Valley was no exception to the heat, with news reports naming 2023 as the region’s second hottest summer. But the rising temperatures were particularly stifling for some neighborhoods in Roanoke —  those impacted by harmful urban planning practices.

Theodore Lim, an assistant professor of urban affairs and planning in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech, has been working with the city of Roanoke to address the underlying issues that led to the Urban Island Heat Effect. The phenomenon happens in cities when there is a lack of greenery and a surplus of hard, heat-trapping materials, such as concrete. Those areas typically are  hotter than surrounding rural areas. According to Lim’s research, certain stressors, like poverty, housing, and gun violence, already are playing out in these neighborhoods.

Lim and his multidisciplinary team received a Stage 1 National Science Civic Innovation Challenge Planning Grant in 2022. It provided them with $50,000 to support rapid implementation of community-driven, research-based pilot projects that address heat resilience priorities.

Now, the team has received a Stage 2 award to further assist with their efforts.

The award, announced in September, gives Lim $1 million to spend over the next year as he implements pilot programs in Roanoke. Lim’s project, “Youth-centered civic technology, science, and art for improving community heat resilience infrastructure,” is one of 19 university initiatives nationwide to receive the funding.

Why it matters

Lim plans to address rising city temperatures through community awareness and capacity building. His team is designing programs for the city’s youth, with a focus on youth living in areas of the city that are particularly vulnerable to the effects of rising temperatures. The activities will include STEM, arts and spirituality, and a high school workforce development program — all intended to produce data that will inform future planning for neighborhoods experiencing the worst impacts of rising temperatures in Roanoke.

Data will include quantitative data to measure the experience of temperature in the city. The researchers will gather data from wearable temperature sensors and indoor and outdoor temperature monitoring equipment. How people experience temperature is highly dependent on travel patterns, where they actually spend time, the location and type of housing they reside in, and whether or they have access to air conditioning, Lim said. The group hopes to monitor temperatures at bus stops, for example, using wearable temperature sensors to give a glimpse of individual temperature exposure.

Data will also include qualitative experiences of heat, urban nature, history, and civic engagement that individuals will produce through arts and spirituality programs. Qualitative data — like oral histories, paintings, poetry, and public murals — will reveal community assets,  the ways people prioritize neighborhood investment, and how they envision their community’s safety under the stressors of global climate change. The research team will track how collaboration between civic organizations and city agencies shapes how individuals conceptualize the challenge of climate change adaptation, among many other pressing issues in the city.

Dozens of community partners are contributing to the project and are developing the idea of "trauma-informed, healing-centered" urban resilience planning to acknowledge the harmful effects of past urban planning initiatives, including deep distrust of government initiatives in the African American community, Lim added.

“The project seeks to build one pathway toward healing some of those wounds, through deep, authentic community engagement and civic capacity building,” he said. 

The grant is an example of how the City of Roanoke continuously seeks opportunities for partnerships to strengthen the community and “target resources in areas affected by historic disinvestment,” said Wayne Leftwich, Roanoke City’s planning manager.

“We believe combining quality data gathering, community engagement, and arts and culture is an innovative approach to develop strategies that help mitigate extreme heat,” Leftwich said.

Goals of the project

  • Engage youth and families around the issue of urban adaptation to the effects of global climate change, specifically around the issue of rising temperatures.
  • Pilot different practices of urban planning from the communities most vulnerable to the effects of rising temperatures
  • Increase the community's capacity to deal with the risks of rising temperatures
  • Improve civic engagement processes and rebuild trust

Who’s involved

  • Academic researchers: Eric Wiseman, Virginia Tech associate professor of forest resources and environmental conservation; Jake Grohs, Virginia Tech associate professor of engineering education and Malle Schilling, PhD student in engineering education; Naren Ramakrishnan, Virginia Tech professor of engineering; Nathan Self, Virginia Tech research associate of computer science; Julia Gohlke, associate professor of environmental health; Paroma Wagle, assistant professor urban affairs and planning at the School of Public and International Affairs; Jack Carroll, master’s student of urban and regional planning; David Moore, Lara Nagle, Mary Beth Dunkenberger, and Andrea Briceno Mosquera of Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance; Laura Hartman, Roanoke College associate professor of environmental studies.
  • Government agencies: Roanoke Planning Department and Office of Sustainability, Roanoke Parks and Recreation, Roanoke City Public Schools, Roanoke Public Libraries, Roanoke Department of Stormwater
  • Community partners: Antwyne Calloway, community leader;  Decca Knight, trauma specialist; B.J. Lark, CommUNITY ARTS Roanoke; Darlene Lewis, director of the Hope Center, Jane Gabrielle McCadden, artist; Antonio Stovall, community leader; Roanoke Chapter of the Kiwanis Club; Trees Roanoke; The Foundry; various community churches

Virginia Tech voice

“The premise of the NSF Civic Innovation grant is right in line with VT's Ut Prosim ethic.  It is about community-identified need and partnerships between academia and community,” Lim said. “It advances  participatory action research –  simultaneously meeting the needs of practical social problems while also advancing research and new knowledge creation. Graduate students at VT will also be intimately involved in community-based learning and will partner with high school students in Roanoke to support planning from the bottom up.”

Written by Kelsey Bartlett