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Healthy Cities Urban Heat Leadership Academy Receives Multiple Arizona Forward Environmental Excellence Awards

The grassroots program is a national model for community involvement in building greener, cooler communities.

An aerial view of downtown Phoenix, Arizona and the surrounding urban area from an altitude of about 2,000 feet over the desert floor during dusk.
Downtown Phoenix An aerial view of downtown Phoenix, Arizona and the surrounding urban area from an altitude of about 2000 feet over the desert floor during the hours of dusk. © Art Wager

On Saturday, April 29, The Nature Conservancy in Arizona and Phoenix Revitalization Corporation (PRC) were awarded three prestigious awards at Arizona Forward’s 41st Annual Environmental Excellence Awards. The Nature Conservancy's Urban Heat Leadership Academy, in partnership with PRC and others, received the 2023 President’s Award, the top honor of all project submissions, as well as the Crescordia Award in the Healthy Communities category and an Award of Distinction in the Environmental Education & Communication category.

The Arizona Forward Environmental Excellence Awards, presented by SRP, is Arizona’s most prominent environmental awards program, recognizing exemplary projects throughout the state. Initiated in 1980, the awards program has grown to be the state’s benchmark for economic and environmental accomplishment, and award-winning projects are among the most distinguished and impactful achievements in Arizona.

“I am deeply grateful to our partners who share our commitment to addressing heat disparities in the Phoenix Metro Area—representing community-based organizations, nonprofits, local and county government agencies and academia—who were willing to lend their time, knowledge and resources to develop this program,” said Anna Bettis, Arizona Healthy Cities program director. “This approach has allowed us to amplify community voices and solutions to combat urban heat, and I am inspired to see the difference that Academy graduates are making.”   

Phoenix is the hottest large metro area in the country. More than 2,000 people died due to heat in Maricopa County over the past decade, and this is projected to worsen over time and to impact those in underserved communities the most. The first-of-its-kind virtual Urban Heat Leadership Academy launched in Arizona in 2021 to respond to the urgent problem of rising temperatures and the need identified by the community during the Heat Action Planning process. Community residents stated that they wanted “advocacy training on how to educate decision makers on the effects of extreme heat in their community” and to learn “how to speak up about heat as a health and safety crisis and share the potential for improvements to thermal comfort and public health.”

The bilingual Academy aims to build the capacity of communities most impacted by the heat, so they have the knowledge, skills and resources to advocate for nature-based solutions to mitigate urban heat. Frontline communities include those in hotter neighborhoods.

To date, approximately 80 Phoenix residents have graduated from the program, and many Academy graduates have teamed up to implement projects to mitigate heat in their communities. Those projects include community greenings, neighborhood plant giveaways and the opening of a Phoenix cooling center.

“The Academy allows us to unlock the wisdom of neighborhoods and gives them the tools to do something, which has resulted in some amazing work from our residents,” said Eva Olivas, executive director/CEO of Phoenix Revitalization Corporation. “Growing the Academy only means that we will have a more informed community that can better respond to the issue of heat in Arizona.”

As the program continues to grow, the Urban Heat Leadership Academy is currently enrolling for its third cohort. The Academy is offered in Spanish and English, is free of charge and is open to Phoenix Metro Area residents. Those interested can apply now through May 26, 2023. The Academy will kick off on Saturday, June 17, and runs every other Saturday morning through October 2023.

The continuation of the Academy would not be possible without The Nature Conservancy’s partners and the generous funders who continue to make it possible. A special thank you to Vitalyst Health Foundation, who helped lay the groundwork for the Academy by funding the Healthy Cities Program and Heat Action Planning, as well as the generous support from the JPB Foundation, American Express, Arizona Public Service (APS) and the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management for the Urban Heat Leadership Academy.

To learn more about Arizona's Healthy Cities program, please visit nature.org/healthycitiesaz.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world’s toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 76 countries and territories—37 by direct conservation impact and 39 through partners—we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.