San Francisco releases plan to prepare for extreme heat and air-quality events

The HAQR Plan is San Francisco's first comprehensive framework to address extreme heat and air-quality events as local heat waves and wildfire smoke become more frequent and more intense.
July 17, 2023

SAN FRANCISCO, CA---Today, San Francisco released a new plan to address extreme heat and wildfire smoke events and their public health impacts. The Heat and Air Quality Resilience (HAQR) Plan outlines over 30 strategies to make San Francisco more resilient to heat waves and wildfire smoke, as climate change makes these events more frequent and more intense.

“As climate change continues to impact all of us, it’s important that we are prepared for poor air quality and higher temperatures, especially for our most vulnerable communities,” said Mayor London Breed. “This plan lays out bold, aggressive action because our future depends on it, and San Franciscans need to know how the City is planning to be more resilient and prepared in response to environmental challenges. We’ve made good progress, but the work can’t stop here. We will continue to strengthen our preparedness and will find ways to partner with community-based organizations to make sure we are as resilient as possible.”

The HAQR Plan, published today by the City Administrator’s Office of Resilience and Capital Planning, the Department of Public Health, and the Department of Emergency Management, is the City’s first comprehensive plan to address the impacts of extreme heat and wildfire smoke. The plan focuses on medium-to-long-term strategies, ranging from weatherization to green infrastructure projects, to help San Francisco adapt its buildings, infrastructure, services, and environment for current and future heat waves and air quality events.

“Climate change impacts our daily lives—from the heat, wildfires and smokes we experience, to the extreme precipitation events we just saw this year,” said City Administrator Carmen Chu. “The HAQR plan builds upon our existing climate resilience efforts by laying out how we can prepare and make smart decisions about where our resources are being allocated. I want to thank the many City departments and community partners who collaborated to develop this framework.”

Extreme heat and wildfire smoke are still relatively novel hazards for San Francisco. The strategies outlined in the plan help identify roles, responsibilities, resources, and best practices necessary to adapt, mitigate risks, and withstand these extreme climate events.

“Climate change affects everyone’s health, including among older adults, children, and people with pre-existing health conditions,” said Dr. Grant Colfax, Director of Health. “Thanks to this multiagency effort, we are better prepared to respond to future heat and wildfire smoke events while protecting the health of San Franciscans, especially our vulnerable communities.”     

San Francisco is particularly vulnerable to the public health impacts of extreme heat. That is because our buildings and infrastructure are developed for cool coastal temperatures, and our bodies are not acclimated to high temperatures. San Francisco has the lowest rate of air conditioning anywhere in the country. Evidence suggests that San Francisco’s emergency department visits, hospitalizations, and deaths begin to increase when the temperature reaches above 85 degrees.

Between 1961 and 1990, San Francisco experienced an average of 3 and a maximum of 10 days a year of extreme heat, classified as any day over 85 degrees. The state projects those numbers to more than double by the mid-century (2035 – 2065), to an average of 7 and a maximum of 24 days, and to double again by the late century (2070 – 2099), to an average of 15 and a maximum of 51 days a year of extreme heat. That heat will not be felt equally across the City.

New data visualizations released today by the Department of Public Health reveal the distribution of indicators, including age, tree density, and population with existing health conditions, across the City. Access to cooling and ventilation, being unhoused, and living in a neighborhood with more air pollution or higher temperatures influence a person’s exposure to heat and wildfire smoke. Seniors, children, pregnant individuals, and people with preexisting health conditions are the most sensitive to the impacts of extreme heat and air quality incidents. Factors like race and ethnicity, social isolation, income, and disability impact a person’s ability to adapt when extreme weather events happen. Varying exposure further, the City’s fog and mountains create microclimates which often lead to vast differences in temperature and air quality across neighborhoods.

“The entire City is impacted by climate emergencies, but some people are affected more so than others. That is why we must do all we can to proactively mitigate the risks extreme heat and poor air quality cause to us all, with a focus on those most at-risk to climate threats,” said Executive Director Mary Ellen Carroll, Department of Emergency Management. “Our experiences with heat and poor air have made it clear extreme weather are our new normal, and this plan charts the way for us to help those most vulnerable to these environmental emergencies.”

To create the plan, the Office of Resilience and Capital Planning, the Department of Public Health, and the Department of Emergency Management convened 23 City departments, 11 community-based organizations, and experts from UCSF and UC Berkeley. The result was 31 strategies designed to create a San Francisco that is more resilient to extreme heat and wildfire smoke, particularly for communities that bear the greatest public health burden.

"This implementation plan provides specific strategies to protect our most vulnerable residents from extreme heat and poor air quality. First, we identified what are the barriers. For example, we know non-profits and owners of low-income housing face a number of obstacles to equip their buildings with sufficient cooling and air filtration systems in a changing climate. Then, we looked for opportunities,” said Brian Strong, Chief Resilience Officer and Director of the Office of Resilience and Capital Planning. “It’s so important that we get this right. If we do, we can adapt San Francisco’s buildings, infrastructure, and natural environment to reduce exposure to extreme heat and poor air quality, protect the health of our most vulnerable residents, and make San Francisco more resilient to climate-related stressors.”

Eight of the 31 strategies outlined in the plan are ongoing and already in progress by City departments. They include:

  • Establishing priority development zones for green infrastructure focused on heat and air quality resilience, using health, environment, and exposure data, and augmenting existing tree plantings in these areas
  • Standardizing collection and dissemination of data across City departments to support the development of green infrastructure and reduce urban heat islands. Urban heat islands are areas that are much hotter than surrounding areas due to their concentration of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat.
  • Identifying City and community facilities that will form the network of short, medium, and long-term respite locations open to the public for extreme heat, air-quality events, and other emergencies
  • Strengthening and supporting neighborhood hubs that bring together community-based organizations, businesses, and resourcing locations to create and implement neighborhood-specific emergency mitigation, preparedness, and response plans
  • Activating a community branch of the City’s emergency operations center to be a conduit for community partners during extreme heat and wildfire smoke events

Future strategies include:

  • Cooling and clean air pilot projects in a range of building types to identify best practices, including multi-unit, affordable, and supportive housing
  • Developing heat and air quality design guidelines for new buildings as well as retrofit and rehabilitation projects
  • Facilitating a citywide work group of agencies to identify the services necessary to support respite centers and facilitate their use, establish roles and responsibilities, and plan to scale services at various activation thresholds
  • Piloting a wellness check program for community-based organizations and City departments serving vulnerable populations, including homebound seniors and people with access and functional needs
  • Establishing a public-facing online tool to connect residents to local, state, and federal home weatherization and cost-assistance resources
  • Developing public education initiatives to connect benefits of green infrastructure to public health and communicate the full range of benefits of tree canopy expansion

The plan builds upon Mayor London N. Breed’s 2018 Executive Directive on air quality incidents and existing citywide climate resilience and mitigation strategies, including the San Francisco Climate Action Plan and 2020 Hazards and Climate Resilience Plan.