THE WORLD IS GETTING HOTTER. And in South Florida, extreme heat is a growing problem. Miami-Dade County, home to around 2.7 million people and the most southerly metropolitan area in the continental United States, experienced record-breaking temperatures in 2023, with more than 130 days hitting 90 degrees Fahrenheit or more. 

So it is perhaps no surprise that Miami-Dade County was the first municipal government to create the position of chief heat officer. In 2021, the mayor of Miami-Dade County, Daniella Levine Cava, appointed Jane Gilbert MPA 1994 to the job. “The role of chief heat officer addresses the increasing health and economic impacts of rising temperatures,” Gilbert says. “That’s not only because of climate change, but also because of how we develop cities with more asphalt, less vegetation and tree canopy, more waste heat from buildings and vehicles. All of that can make cities up to 10 degrees hotter than their surrounding natural areas.” 


Combining environment and community 

A focus on the environment has been a constant throughout Gilbert’s life. She studied environmental science as an undergraduate at Barnard College in New York. “I was drawn to that field both because of a deep concern for humanity’s impact on the environment and on humanity itself,” Gilbert says. “I loved being able to think across disciplines—science, policy, economics—and to come up with integrated solutions.” 

After college, she worked as an environmental management consultant to large national and international corporations and nonprofits. While this work appealed to her, she realized that she wanted to make a difference locally. “I wanted to make an impact on a community in which I lived and worked,” she says. 

Jane Gilbert

Gilbert came to Harvard Kennedy School in 1992 to make this pivot. “At HKS, I worked on housing and community organizing, community development, health equity, and education, with the idea of trying to merge that environmental and urban community development work,” she says. 

Miami, where Gilbert has lived for almost three decades, became that community that she was looking for. She started and led nonprofits focused on education, the environment, and community development. A job spearheading a project on sea level rise led to her being appointed Miami’s first chief resilience officer in 2016—her first experience working in local government. 

From chief resilience officer to chief heat officer

It was in her role as resilience officer that Gilbert first began to see the importance of heat. “Miami is known internationally for its risks from, and responses to, hurricanes and sea level rise. And in part I got into the role of chief resilience officer to address those risks,” Gilbert says. But when she went out in the community, she found other climate concerns. “Surprisingly, it wasn’t sea level rise. And it wasn’t even hurricanes,” Gilbert says. “Extreme heat was the top concern by far because it’s what they were living day in and day out.” 

Heat is a problem for people in low-income communities especially, Gilbert says. Looking for geographic patterns, her team found that some county ZIP codes had over four times the rates of heat-related emergency department visits and hospitalizations than others, and the top correlating factors were high poverty rates and high land surface temperature. 

“We have over 300,000 outdoor workers, who are primarily low income, who are exposed,” she says. And people who rely on public transport and wait at bus stops are at risk. “I’ve had bus drivers talk to me about having to call 911. ER doctors have shared that people were coming in from having to wait at a bus stop too long.” Hearing this feedback, Mayor Levine Cava collaborated with the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center to help support the creation of the new chief heat officer role.   

“Extreme heat was the top concern by far because it’s what they were living day in and day out.”

Jane Gilbert

Addressing extreme heat in Miami-Dade County

Gilbert began by focusing on prevention. “One aspect is to inform and prepare people, so we created a ‘heat-season campaign,’” she says, which was deployed during the hottest times of the year, and targeted high-risk ZIP codes using, a variety of marketing tools—ranging from social media to digital advertising in medical offices—and different languages to reach the county’s diverse population. Gilbert has also focused on targeted trainings, including for health care workers. “They are already trained in responding to heat-related illnesses,” Gilbert says. “But we wanted them to be able to identify people who may be particularly sensitive or vulnerable—that outdoor worker; that pregnant woman; that person on certain psychiatric medications that may not realize that they are more sensitive to heat.”  

Gilbert’s team is also training citizens representing various community- and faith-based organizations. “We partnered with our emergency management and community-based organizations using a ‘train the trainer’ model so we could deliver the message in Spanish and Haitian Creole as well and target vulnerable communities,” Gilbert says. “Because it’s one thing to see something on a bus, but it’s another thing to hear your neighbor tell you.” 

In addition to raising awareness and providing training, Gilbert’s team is promoting measures for people to cool their homes affordably, including weatherization, retrofits, and availability of backup power for cooling in the event of an extended power outage. 

Finally, Gilbert is addressing urban heat islands by increasing tree canopy coverage. It’s been difficult to increase coverage beyond its current level of 20%, because of tree loss from hurricanes, urban development, and weakening state laws.  

“We’re focusing on those areas with less than 20% tree canopy and a higher than 20% poverty rate. This year we’ve got close to $4 million for this effort and we just received a $10 million 5-year federal grant to further these efforts. We’re excited about that initiative because we’ve seen areas where we can bring down the temperature significantly with trees,” Gilbert says. Increasing tree coverage has other benefits—sequestering carbon, managing stormwater, improving air quality, and making urban areas more walkable. “I’m very passionate about that piece of our work,” Gilbert says, “it’s the longest-term, but it’s going to be the most rewarding.” 

Banner image by Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg; portrait by Wilfredo Lee

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