Heat-related deaths, sports and gentrification: A path toward equitable climate action
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Portland, Oregon. Image: Unsplash
The sports industry cannot take climate action at the expense of a city’s poorest community members. Sports industry leaders must engage in the difficult work of building green spaces and places to play that actively protect against gentrification.

Parks, greenspaces and sports fields are matters of life and death.

In the early summer of 2021, 69 people died from heat-related illnesses in Portland, Oregon, in just one week. 

According to Vivek Shandas, the director of the Sustaining Urban Places Research Lab at Portland State University: “We knew who was going to die.”

Over 60 per cent of heat-related deaths in Portland that week came in zip codes with higher poverty rates than the national average. Many of the city’s poorest communities are living in urban heat islands: large expanses of concrete and buildings that amplify and trap heat, often entirely devoid of parks, greenspaces and sports fields.

On the hottest day that week (and in Portland’s history) Shandas and his team recorded an air temperature of 124 degrees Fahrenheit in one of Portland’s poorest neighborhoods, about 25 degrees hotter than on the wealthier, park-filled west side of the city.

Portland’s ecological and economic divide is not unique. Studies from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and the journal of Nature Communications found a systematic link across the United States between lower-income neighborhoods, and higher temperatures and pollution levels.

Heat in the United States of America — not hurricanes, sea-level rise or flooding — is the number-one weather related killer, and disproportionately impacts a city’s poorest and least served communities.

Kicking the climate can down the road 

As sports teams, leagues and grassroots organisations in urban areas grapple with developing new climate initiatives, it seems their greatest potential impact would be in addressing the greatest climate threat to their community: urban heat.

On the surface a solution might seem simple: if heat islands are caused (in part) by a lack of greenspaces, then sports industry should, well, build more parks and places to play. There are many organisations that already do a great job at this. You may know them as climate initiatives coming from professional teams/leagues pledging to plant trees for every point scored, civic organisations turning parking lots into fields, and pay-for-play clubs building massive complexes of greenspaces.

Many of these projects aimed at building new green infrastructure, however, fail to recognise the connection between development and displacement — a term aptly coined: green gentrification. 

Left unchecked, new, well-intentioned climate initiatives in underserved communities have the potential to kickstart gentrification in the same neighborhoods they are seeking to serve.

The current scope of the sports industry’s climate initiatives largely excludes government bodies that oversee housing, rent protections and workforce development. 

This lack of collaboration has profound consequences: as parks and greenspaces inherently improve the livability of a neighborhood, they often spark predatory development and dramatically increase rental prices. 

Perhaps inadvertently, low-income neighborhoods quickly become unaffordable, and an in-migration of more wealthy residents and businesses occupy the newly vacant real estate.

Thus, the vicious cycle becomes clear. Well-intentioned climate initiatives in underserved neighborhoods have the potential to spark gentrification and force low-income residents to the margins of society. Rinse and repeat.

Change the tracks, don’t derail the train

Climate initiatives from the sports sector have undoubtedly generated valuable momentum and continue to push other industries toward greater action. There is, however, important room for growth.

To capitalise and leverage this momentum, we must not derail the train, but simply move the tracks. In other words, the new construction of a field, park or greenspace to slow climate change and improve the livability of a neighborhood, comes with the responsibility to protect against gentrification. 

The fight for social and climate justice is inextricably intertwined and should be treated as such.

More pragmatically—and although every city is different—shifting course means embracing the bureaucracy.

The sports industry must leverage its power, influence, and resources to ensure that urban greenspaces are developed collaboratively with housing protections, tenant rights provisions and cost of living standards in surrounding areas. Often this means working collaboratively with city, county, and state municipalities.

At first, engaging with government bodies will mean less progress in the short term, and may seem counter-intuitive to the impending threat of climate change. This collaborative work, however, is slow by design and will build effective, representative systems that understand housing and climate action as inseparable. From here, the sport industry can develop parks and greenspaces as a part of a holistic and interconnected effort to address climate change and protect the most vulnerable members of society.

The next heat wave

Unless the sports industry changes course before the next heat wave hits, we know who is going to die.

Parks and greenspaces have the undeniable opportunity to slow climate change and reduce heat related deaths, and in response the sports industry has a moral imperative to build these safe spaces to play.

We must, however, ensure climate action does not condemn our poorest communities to find refuge on another heat island.

About the author 

Adam Lewis is a social entrepreneur focused on using play and sport to drive social justice and build equitable communities around the United States. He is the Founder and former managing director at Street Soccer USA-PDX, and is currently serving a term as an appointed advisor to the City of Portland, Oregon. 


Appointed Advisor
Portland Parks and Recreation


All countries
North America
All sports
Sustainable Development Goals
13 - Climate action
Target Group
All target groups

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