Sharon L. Harlan is jointly appointed in the Department of Health Sciences and the Department of Sociology & Anthropology. Her research explores the human impacts of climate change that are dependent upon people’s positions in social hierarchies, places in built environments of unequal quality, and policies that improve or impede adaptive capabilities. Focusing on excessive heat and water scarcity as significant and increasingly critical threats to human health and well-being in semi-arid cities, she studies urban landscapes that produce unequal risks for people in neighborhoods divided by social class and race/ethnicity. Dr. Harlan collaborates with the Urban Water Sustainability Network on research and community engagement relevant to urban communities that are disadvantaged by the cost and quality of water, flood hazards, and climate change. She has led several multi-institutional, interdisciplinary research and engagement projects that integrate social theories about the historical production of environmental injustices with data and models from the ecological, geospatial, and health sciences. She has served as an advisor on climate justice and social vulnerability to organizations such as the American Sociological Association, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and the Social Science Coordinating Committee of the U.S. Global Climate Change Research Program. She teaches courses on environmental health, climate justice, and social survey design. Dr. Harlan earned a BA in Sociology at Northeastern University and a PhD in Sociology from Cornell University.
Areas of Expertise (4)
Cornell University: Ph.D, Sociology 1979
Cornell University: M.A., Sociology 1976
Northeastern University: B.A., Sociology 1972
Media Appearances (3)
Feature: Extreme heat - an "unseen threat" – burns U.S. urban poor
Sharon Harlan, a professor of health sciences and sociology at Northeastern University in Boston, says she and colleagues have discovered a simple reality: Access to cash can equate with the ability to cool down.
In Phoenix, Arizona’s broiling capital where the July average daytime temperature is 104 degrees Farenheit (40 degrees Celsius), “people can buy cooler temperatures”, she said...
Hot Take: Heat Waves Scorch Unsuspecting Cities
“Heat waves are projected to become more intense, more frequent, and longer lasting over the next century,” said heat justice expert Sharon Harlan, professor of health sciences and sociology at Northeastern. Here, Harlan discusses the dangers of heat waves and how they disproportionately affect low-income populations...
Arizona's heat is getting worse — and it's killing people
Sharon Harlan, a professor of health sciences and sociology at Northeastern University in Boston, has studied heat and income inequality for 15 years. She and other researchers found that while it is not only warmer in low-income neighborhoods, residents also faced health risks associated with that heat.
“People in poorer, lower-income neighborhoods in the metro area actually have higher rates of death and hospitalization and emergency-room visits caused by heat exposure,” she said...
Jenerette, G.D., S.L. Harlan, A. Buyantuev, W.L. Stefanov, J. Declet-Barreto, B.L. Ruddell, S.W. Myint, S. Kaplan, X. Li.
With rapidly expanding urban regions, the effects of land cover changes on urban surface temperatures and the consequences of these changes for human health are becoming progressively larger problems. We investigated residential parcel and neighborhood scale variations in urban land surface temperature, land cover, and residents’ perceptions of landscapes and heat illnesses in the subtropical desert city of Phoenix, AZ USA.
Petitti, D.B., D. Hondula, S. Yang, S.L. Harlan, and G. Chowell
Extreme heat is a public health challenge. The scarcity of directly comparable studies on the association of heat with morbidity and mortality and the inconsistent identification of threshold temperatures for severe impacts hampers the development of comprehensive strategies aimed at reducing adverse heat-health events. Consideration of multiple health events and diagnoses together with a comprehensive approach to identifying threshold temperatures revealed large differences in trigger points for possible interventions related to heat. Providing an array of heat trigger points applicable for different end-users may improve the public health response to a problem that is projected to worsen in the coming decades.
Declet-Barreto, J.H, A.J. Brazel, W. Chow, C.A. Martin, and S.L. Harlan
We conducted microclimate simulations in ENVI-Met 3.1 to evaluate the impact of vegetation in lowering temperatures during an extreme heat event in an urban core neighborhood park in Phoenix, Arizona. We predicted air and surface temperatures under two different vegetation regimes: existing conditions representative of Phoenix urban core neighborhoods, and a proposed scenario informed by principles of landscape design and architecture and Urban Heat Island mitigation strategies. We found significant potential air and surface temperature reductions between representative and proposed vegetation scenarios: 1) a Park Cool Island effect that extended to non-vegetated surfaces; 2) a net cooling of air underneath or around canopied vegetation ranging from 0.9 °C to 1.9 °C during the warmest time of the day; and 3) potential reductions in surface temperatures from 0.8 °C to 8.4 °C in areas underneath or around vegetation.
Harlan, S.L., J.H. Declet-Barreto, W.L. Stefanov, and D.B. Petitti
Most heat-related deaths occur in cities, and future trends in global climate change and urbanization may amplify this trend. Understanding how neighborhoods affect heat mortality fills an important gap between studies of individual susceptibility to heat and broadly comparative studies of temperature-mortality relationships in cities. Place-based indicators of vulnerability complement analyses of person-level heat risk factors. Surface temperature might be used in Maricopa County to identify the most heat-vulnerable neighborhoods, but more attention to the socioecological complexities of climate adaptation is needed.
Tommy Bleasdale, Carolyn Crouch, Sharon L Harlan
This study examined a struggling community gardening program in a low-income minority community in Phoenix, Arizona. The gardening program exists within a larger local food initiative organized by a nonprofit community development organization. The nonprofit’s goals for the community gardening program are to provide residents with opportunities for education, extra income and socializing. In partnership with the nonprofit and local residents, we undertook a study to determine the potential for increasing the recruitment and retention of local gardeners in order to sustain a successful community gardening program. We used interviews and participant observation to create an exploratory survey that measured residents’ perceptions of benefits and burdens associated with gardening. Results revealed that while respondents had a level of gardening interest and experience in the community, they also lacked awareness about the gardening program. Perceptions of the benefits and burdens of gardening varied among current gardeners, ex-gardeners, and people who had never gardened. The benefits of gardening suggested by many residents differed from the local food initiative goals. If community gardens and local food initiatives are to succeed, organizers should align their programs with the desires of neighborhood residents and educate them about a wide range of potential benefits of gardening to both individuals and neighborhoods.
Harlan, S.L., A. Brazel, L. Prashad, W.L. Stefanov, and L. Larsen
Human exposure to excessively warm weather, especially in cities, is an increasingly important public health problem. This study examined heat-related health inequalities within one city in order to understand the relationships between the microclimates of urban neighborhoods, population characteristics, thermal environments that regulate microclimates, and the resources people possess to cope with climatic conditions. A simulation model was used to estimate an outdoor human thermal comfort index (HTCI) as a function of local climate variables collected in 8 diverse city neighborhoods during the summer of 2003 in Phoenix, USA. HTCI is an indicator of heat stress, a condition that can cause illness and death. There were statistically significant differences in temperatures and HTCI between the neighborhoods during the entire summer, which increased during a heat wave period. Lower socioeconomic and ethnic minority groups were more likely to live in warmer neighborhoods with greater exposure to heat stress. High settlement density, sparse vegetation, and having no open space in the neighborhood were significantly correlated with higher temperatures and HTCI. People in warmer neighborhoods were more vulnerable to heat exposure because they had fewer social and material resources to cope with extreme heat. Urban heat island reduction policies should specifically target vulnerable residential areas and take into account equitable distribution and preservation of environmental resources.