Research Could Put Neighborhood-Level Weather Data in Hands of Residents, Planners

Weather information and air quality data pinpointed to your very neighborhood and street could soon be at your fingertips, thanks to a UT research project.

Drew Howe, a master's student in civil and environmental engineering, during installation of a sensor. Howe takes care of the sensors and collecting data every two weeks.

Drew Howe, a master’s student in civil and environmental engineering, during installation of a sensor. Howe takes care of the sensors and collecting data every two weeks.

Kelsey Ellis, assistant professor of geography, and her collaborators are examining how climate affects people on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis. They have placed weather sensors in urban Knoxville neighborhoods to capture data such as temperature, humidity, air pollution, and wind information.

The goal is twofold: to help the public better understand its vulnerability to the elements and empower residents to make decisions based on accurate weather information, and to help city planners better understand how land use and tree cover affect neighborhoods and further inform urban forestry planning and residential development in communities.

If all goes according to plan, residents may soon have an app or website to check heat index, air pollution, and temperature information specific to their neighborhoods so they know when it is safe enough for children to play out, when to cut the grass, and when to bring the plants in.

Close-up view of a weather sensor in Knoxville's Burlington neighborhood.

Close-up view of a weather sensor in Knoxville’s Burlington neighborhood.

“Often data access only happens at the city level, so all residents would typically use information coming from the airport,” Ellis said. “Neighborhood-specific information will highlight the differences within the city, identify potential vulnerability issues, and provide city leaders a mechanism for improving these conditions.”

Ellis set out to examine the effect of trees on neighborhood climates and how they help a neighborhood remain cool. She began with the premise that poorer neighborhoods usually have less vegetation so residents might be exposed to more extreme heat.

She partnered with Jon Hathaway, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Lisa Reyes Mason, assistant professor of social work, for the project. In July 2014, they affixed ten sensors to power poles—two each in Lonsdale, Burlington, West Hills, and Vestal, one on Gay Street downtown, and one at Ijams Nature Center. Over a year, Hathaway’s engineering students took care of the sensors and collected data using a thumb drive. The team is currently analyzing the information.

Preliminary data shows that downtown Knoxville and neighborhoods with less tree cover were warmer than any other part of town. It also reveals that while trees kept neighborhoods cooler during the day, they didn’t cool neighborhoods at night as expected because of black ground surfaces that absorbed heat. Although Ijams and other treed neighborhoods like West Hills stayed cool, the heat index there on really hot days was high because of the moisture in the soil and grass.

Mason and her students conducted interviews with a small sample of residents from Burlington, Vestal, Lonsdale and West Hills to explore perceptions of neighborhood environmental conditions and how they are experienced or impact people’s everyday lives.

Participants from Burlington, Vestal, and Lonsdale expressed more concern about weather extremes than participants from West Hills. Effects described included social isolation, difficulty breathing, and rationing air conditioning use due to the high cost. Air quality was a concern for about half of the participants from Vestal and Lonsdale but of no concern for participants from Burlington and West Hills.

“Across all four neighborhoods, green space was valued and connected to different aspects of well-being,” Mason said.

Mason and her students also designed and implemented a phone survey with 200 Knoxville residents, examining their interest in having more local neighborhood-level environment or climate data. Finally, they conducted five focus groups with residents to explore people’s preferences for different kinds of websites and smartphone or tablet applications that would provide neighborhood-level information. Residents could use them for everyday decision making and potentially to become more active and engaged in environmental and climate change issues.

The researchers are now in the second year of the study. They have applied for a National Science Foundation grant to expand the work—potentially nationwide.

Engineering students are developing the app or website and building the second generation of sensors, which will also collect noise pollution data.

The UT team has met with a city urban forester, Knoxville’s Office of Sustainability, members of the Climate Change Science Institute, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory to discuss how the research could be useful in determining tree placement in urban neighborhoods, weatherization of homes, and helping residents to become more energy efficient.

The first two years of work, which ends in July, is sponsored by the UT Institute for a Secure and Sustainable Environment.

“We ultimately want to do a lot more than many microclimate studies do by applying our results,” Ellis said. “We want to help improve conditions in more vulnerable neighborhoods and inform residents of their potential risk and what they should do about it.”

 

CONTACT:

Lola Alapo (865-974-3993, lalapo@utk.edu)