Cities, Climate and Inequalities

Climate change adaptation on the margins: Community contributions to reducing vulnerability to extreme heat

December 2022

Anne-Marie D’Amours, researcher at Parole d’excluEs; Étienne Poulin, professor in sociology (Cégep de Rimouski) and graduate of the master’s program in urban studies (INRS); and Sophie L. Van Neste, professor of urban studies (INRS) and director of the Urban Climate Action Research Chair


Global warming is manifesting itself on a local scale through an increase in the frequency, duration and severity of extreme heat episodes (Jandaghian and Akbari, 2018). According to Ouranos projections, Montreal is on track for a significant increase in the number of days over 30°C. While the average number of such days was 11 annually between 1981 and 2010, it is estimated to oscillate between 30 and 41 per year by 2050, depending on the carbon emission scenario (Ouranos, 2020). Furthermore, the risk posed by this hazard weighs much more heavily on certain vulnerable segments of the population, such as the elderly, the socially isolated or the socioeconomically disadvantaged, with the latter being more likely to live in urban heat islands (UHIs) (Chakraborty et al., 2019). Hence, in their efforts to implement climate change adaptation measures, cities also find themselves confronted with issues of social and environmental equity when seeking to meet the needs and vulnerabilities of the entire population. In our research, we wanted to focus on the less conventional climate adaptation actors, given that we consider them to contribute, directly or otherwise, to reducing these social vulnerabilities and mitigating certain socio-environmental inequalities through social support practices. Although Montreal has a dynamic community and non-profit network, the potential contribution of this sector to heat wave adaptation remains poorly understood.

Literature review

During the summer months, cities are particularly affected by the increase in heat waves due to the phenomenon of UHIs, among others because they concentrate populations of elderly or disadvantaged people (Berry and Richardson, 2016). Although heat waves are less visible, or at least less spectacular, than other climatic hazards such as floods or hurricanes (Sood et al., 1987), they are among the deadliest meteorological events (Hales et al., 2014). However, regulatory and governance approaches to mitigate their impacts have so far been limited (Hondula et al., 2015; Keith et al., 2019). A systematic review of the scientific literature shows that urban and regional planners intervene in heat wave adaptation almost exclusively by reducing UHIs through greening initiatives (Keith et al., 2019).

Apart from exposure to UHIs, individuals’ vulnerability to heat waves is largely determined by their age or health status (Kravchenko et al., 2013). Efforts to mitigate this vulnerability therefore call upon the intervention of a restricted network of actors (Zaidi and Pelling, 2015), namely the health sector that provides emergency care. However, either of these two main approaches—greening initiatives and emergency care (Turner et al. 2021)—fail to take account of structuring factors of vulnerability and inequity such as social isolation, socioeconomic disadvantage, housing conditions or access to various services. Yet consideration of these factors is crucial when seeking to initiate structural and long-term transformations for the population’s resilience to extreme heat (Zografos et al., 2016, Van Neste et al., 2024).

Indeed, the fields of political ecology and disaster studies have demonstrated that vulnerabilities to the consequences of climate change are socially and politically constructed, stemming from complex, intersectional and long-term processes of uneven urban development and marginalization (Klinenberg, 2015; Ranganathan and Bratman, 2021; Wilson, 2020). Global warming tends rather to expose and exacerbate pre-existing vulnerabilities than cause them (Taylor, 2015). For example, sociologist Eric Klinenberg (2015) has shown that the successive roll-out of deindustrialization and disinvestment led to commercial devitalization and a deterioration of social life in an underprivileged Chicago neighbourhood. These processes, in turn, led to the degradation of social infrastructures, consisting of public spaces and facilities such as parks, sidewalks, libraries and various local shops—in other words, spaces that enhance social life in the city (Latham and Layton, 2019). The absence of such social infrastructures are, then, attributed to the difference in mortality rate (four times higher) between this district and another equally disadvantaged one during the 1995 heat wave.

Faced with the difficulty of assessing and taking into account the multiplicity of factors that cause vulnerability to heat (Oven et al., 2012), it is becoming essential to move away from siloed modes of intervention and to opt instead for risk governance modes that mobilize a greater diversity of individuals and organizations, sectors and scales of intervention (Wilhelmi and Hayden, 2010). Research carried out in London, for example, demonstrated that community and non-profit networks were best equipped to identify and reach populations vulnerable to heat given their expertise in the field and their proximity to the intervention environment (Burchell et al., 2017). A study combining different models of risks and vulnerabilities generated by intense heat episodes in Houston also demonstrates that community-based adaptation strategies aimed at reducing social isolation are the most effective and least difficult to implement (Rohat et al., 2021).

The Montreal community is characterized by a network of organizations whose mission includes reducing social injustice and finding collective solutions to various social needs and issues (Lamoureux, 2008). As the third sector, the role of these organizations is to offer services at the neighbourhood level and respond to needs that are not provided or addressed by the public network. Some of these issues, such as access to housing, socioeconomic disadvantage and the isolation of the elderly, are among the factors identified in the literature as contributing to heat vulnerability.

Cases, methods and data from the original research

With this in mind, it seemed appropriate to examine the potential role of community action in reducing the socioeconomic inequalities and precariousness that are at the root of vulnerability to intense heat episodes. The aim was to explore a blind spot in climate action by asking to what extent the actions (beyond greening) of community groups contribute to increasing the resilience of heat-vulnerable populations in Montreal neighbourhoods. Initiated in the borough of Lachine during the summer and fall of 2020, this first stage of research was part of a broader project led by the Labo Climat Montréal team on the governance of climate  adaptation in large urban projects. For recruitment purposes, we targeted organizations working on climate change-related issues or with populations that have heightened vulnerability to intense heat, as listed in a report on extreme heat events issued by the CIUSSS du Centre-Sud-de-l’Île-de-Montréal. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with a number of community organizations to document their practices during and in advance of heat waves, as well as the challenges encountered in their interventions. Noting the wealth of initiatives undertaken by Lachine community organizations to support the most vulnerable, a second phase of research was then carried out throughout the city.

A total of 27 semi-structured interviews were conducted with community and non-profit actors, 10 in Lachine and 17 in various Montreal neighbourhoods. The aim was to document how community groups are responding to the challenges posed by the need to adapt to heat waves, their perception of their role in this regard, and the resources at their disposal. We also sought to understand how these organizations take into account certain inequalities in terms of vulnerability to heat.


As early as the recruitment phase, we observed that some community organizations did not see themselves as climate adaptation actors. Many of the neighbourhood committees and organizations we contacted directly suggested that we contact Éco-quartiers or groups involved in greening. This reaction reflects the tendency to associate adaptation with greening interventions (Keith et al., 2019, Turner et al. 2022), and also explains why some community actors feel that adaptation is not a concern of theirs.

We met with a number of groups and organizations involved in greening. Some organizations responsible for greening in Lachine work to improve the uneven distribution of green spaces and vegetation between or within neighbourhoods, and others focus their interventions on particularly disadvantaged areas or seek to involve social housing tenants in the greening of common spaces.  Environmental justice and social inclusion issues are   taken into account by community groups with  greening initiatives. At the same time, there are numerous social support initiatives directly addressing both vulnerabilities and resilience to heat which are carried out by community organizations despite climate change adaptation not being formally part of their mission. Limiting adaptation to greening runs the risk of excluding, from reflections about adaptation, community and informal support networks that care for the elderly, families and people experiencing loss of autonomy.

Leading up to the summer season, some organizations carry out awareness-raising activities in advance of heat waves even though they receive no specific funding to tackle this issue; these activities address segments of the population, and their caregivers, who are particularly vulnerable to extreme heat. One organization, for example, held a workshop for families with young children aimed at informing them about the risks associated with extreme heat and offering them strategies to better tolerate heat waves. Some organizations working with the elderly, the homeless and low-income families distributed equipment to help users cool down (fans, misters, water bottles and insulated containers). Beyond these preventive actions, some organizations also intervene more directly with people who are at risk of being particularly affected by the heat. One organization in Lachine, whose mission is to provide social support to the elderly, includes in its activities the monitoring and active support of its users who are particularly vulnerable to heat waves. At the initial contact stage, the organization assesses the person’s level of vulnerability (degree of autonomy, health problems, support network). Then, when a heat wave occurs, the organization contacts the person and provides assistance when needed. It even has a minibus available to move people to air-conditioned premises if necessary.

More generally, community organizations that work with marginalized populations, and whose programming includes activities that help create and maintain social ties and break isolation, can also be seen as actors in heat wave adaptation. In the summer of 2020, a Lachine organization staged shows in the backyards of seniors’ residences. In another neighbourhood, a group frequently organized free cultural activities in parks they had previously enhanced by planting vegetation and installing decorative structures to provide shade. In both cases, these activities were an opportunity for the population to enjoy themselves and to socialize with their immediate neighbours, other people from the neighbourhood as well as with curious passers-by who stopped to watch the show.

In our view, such community-based interventions play an important role in the resilience of populations vulnerable to heat, even if they are not initially intended as adaptation practices. By encouraging social interaction, this type of intervention helps to break the isolation identified as a factor of vulnerability during heat waves. More generally, activities organized in public spaces such as parks and alleyways (ruelles) have a positive impact on heat wave resilience, since they promote the vitality of social infrastructures (Latham and Layton, 2019), make public spaces inviting and consolidate ties between residents.

Most of the organizations we encountered professed lacking the financial, human and material resources to develop adaptation initiatives. Many also reported that their proposed actions are not considered as climate change adaptation measures in the strict sense of the term. In our view, however, these actions merit being considered as such: they are generally innovative and ingenious, carried out with limited resources and impressive in their ability to increase the resilience of people vulnerable to the scorching heat. A good example is the organization that developed a monitoring system and a minibus to move isolated seniors who have difficulty cooling down during intense heat. The agency, constraints and lack of ressources from community groups need to be acknolewdged and attended to, however.

In some cases, heat also has an impact on community organizations’ social support practices and their ability to carry them out. Some reported having to adapt their programming in response to heat waves. Organizing activities outdoors, or in premises that are impossible or difficult to air-condition, means having to check weather forecasts and consider the discomfort or danger that heat waves can pose for participants. Some organizations may find themselves having to move their activities to different, more suitable dates or locations. Others have to cancel activities during episodes of intense heat to avoid exposing their most vulnerable users. Some also manage to adapt their practices to maintain their service offer despite the vagaries of the weather; for example, by using appointment scheduling systems on extremely hot days to avoid users having to wait too long in the sun when trying to access certain services.

These constraints on community organizations are all the more worrying in that they affect activities for segments of the population who could benefit greatly from the support given their heightened risk for heat vulnerability, such as the elderly, people living with disabilities or families with young children. As climate change, and heat waves in particular, exacerbate the vulnerabilities of certain populations, both the workload for community organizations and the obstacles to community action are likely to increase.


We believe that there is a lot to glean from community-based practices when seeking to stimulate reflection regarding heat wave adaptation practices that are conducive to social justice. The proximity of community organizations to the realities on the ground and the needs of the population makes them more capable of acting on certain vulnerabilities than formal adaptation practices, which are often limited to the field of public health and greening interventions. These organizations’ expertise in the field allows them to identify courses of action to address the inequalities exacerbated by the climate crisis.

However, community organizations working with vulnerable populations have few resources to maintain their basic services and adequately support their clientele. In fact, heat waves present another layer to the already existing challenge of accommodating vulnerabilities in their communities (Ranganathan and Bratham, 2021). In a context where heat waves are increasing in frequency and intensity with climate change, the community environment will most likely have to shoulder a growing burden, hence the importance of recognizing its own potential as a key player in adaptation.

To cite this article

D’Amours, A-M., Poulin, É., Van Neste, S.L. (2022). Climate change adaptation on the margins: Community contributions to reducing vulnerability to extreme heat. In Cities, Climate and Inequalities Collection. VRM – Villes Régions Monde.

Reference Text

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