Cool Art

Courtesy of the Trust for Public Land

A Philadelphia artist is tackling climate change with local solutions.

Philadelphia, like everywhere else on the planet, is dealing with the effects of climate change. And there, like everywhere else, extreme heat and other dangerous consequences of the changing climate fall disproportionately on marginalized communities. But Philly is tackling the problem in a unique way, through art and imagination, thanks to a collaborative initiative called the Heat Response Project.

Dreamed up by the Trust for Public Land and led by a team of community leaders and local artists, the initiative strives to address climate change by first listening to the people most impacted by it, then using art to come up with solutions. It has so far involved public art projects, plans for improving green spaces, and one roving popsicle cart. “It’s giving voice to the contemporary issues of climate change through public space creative engagement,” says Eve S. Mosher, an environmental artist and the coordinator of Heat Response. 

Mosher’s work focuses on artistic responses to climate change. For example, for her 2007 project, HighWaterLine, she drew a 70-mile-long chalk line through Brooklyn and Manhattan to mark new flood zones in a warming planet. Her work with Heat Response is a bit more optimistic: “We’re doing a lot of creative imagining of what’s possible,” she says.

It couldn’t come at a better time. Last July was the globe’s hottest on record, and scientists predict more extreme heat in the summers to come. These temperatures lead to heat illnesses and deaths—consequences that hit marginalized communities the hardest. Neighborhoods like Fairhill, Grays Ferry, and Southeast Philadelphia (all part of the Heat Response project) might be 10 degrees or more hotter than wealthier, greener areas of the city, thanks to decades of racist policy and disinvestment that left some communities without shade trees, parks, and yards. 

Heat Response, which is also supported by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, kicked off in early 2020 and will continue through mid-2022. 

We caught up with Mosher to talk about engaging with communities, creative solutions to urban heat, and the power of art to inspire positive change.

A portrait of Eve S. Moser Courtesy of the Trust for Public Land

PUBLIC LANDS: How does the Heat Response project work?

EVE S. MOSER: We went into the project saying we don’t know what we’re going to do. We want this to be led by the community. We connected with leaders in the three communities that we’re working in [Fairhill, Grays Ferry, and Southeast Philadelphia], and we found artists: Linda Fernandez, Keir Johnson, Jenna Rob, and José Ortiz-Pagán. 

The first phase was a listening phase, just getting to know what the issues are, looking at the history. What does urban heat mean? What are the solutions that are starting to happen? Now we’re in the collaborative design process. 

What kinds of ideas have emerged so far?

The projects that are emerging are very different: Jenna had this idea of connecting youth and elders in the community through a pen pal program [about extreme urban heat]. In Fairhill, they’re collaborating with students at the Tyler School of Art and Architecture [at Temple University] to do a coloring book on heat. In South Philadelphia, we’re having conversations about food and gardens, and designing something like an awning that’s a growing surface. One of my projects has been working with a local provider who does cargo tricycles; they designed a Heat Response bike that carries popsicles for us; it’s called the Shadecycle. It attracts people’s attention, we give them free popsicles, and we’re having conversations. What’s it like when it’s really hot? What do you worry about? Imagine the city did everything right—what would that look like? 

There are also really simple things. In Grays Ferry, something that came out of the neighborhood was, “We just want somewhere to sit in the shade.” They’re looking to have park benches installed [in Lanier Park] that become a place for community conversations. That’s a really powerful statement.

Heat Response specifically seeks to work with marginalized communities. Why is that important?

The Trust for Public Land built a tool that allowed it to look at overlapping issues in a place like Philadelphia. Where are the communities that are experiencing a lot of heat? Where is there social fragility? These three communities showed up on that map. In a lot of the work we’ve done, we talk about the fact that these communities are hotter, sometimes up to 10 degrees. They don’t have access to green, shady spaces. They’re right on freeways. We have not shied away from talking about what has caused that: infrastructure disinvestment and redlining. 

How do public art initiatives like this help tackle climate change?

Art can communicate the complexities. It’s telling the truth, delivered through narrative storytelling. Then there’s creating literal and figurative space to grieve and heal. Making something can be very useful for processing the grief for what has happened to many people, and what will happen. We’ve lost what we expected the future to be. And what’s really key at this point is creating space for imagination. The Shadecycle had a tree in it—look what a difference it makes to create shade. By showing that possibility, sometimes that opens up pathways for thinking. 

What’s ahead for Heat Response?

We’ll be seeing a lot of things popping up in the neighborhoods. I’m developing an audiovisual piece from the stories I’ve heard that’s going to tour around with the Shadecycle. José has his awning coming out. And one of the things wrapped in our timeline is the concept of stewardship. As this project wraps, how do we keep these conversations happening? 

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