Developing a Methodology for Measuring Changes in Albedo to Reduce Urban Heat Island Effect

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Featured image for the project, Developing a Methodology for Measuring Changes in Albedo to Reduce Urban Heat Island Effect

Photo courtesy of Kyle Klein


The Urban Heat Island (UHI) Effect is a phenomenon that makes urban areas more vulnerable to the effects of high temperatures compared to less developed areas. As climate change progresses, cities like Cambridge, which has not historically been exposed to extreme heat, expects as a result of climate change to experience impacts to health, environment, and infrastructure.  The UHI effect will therefore become an important factor to manage.  Cambridge is a dense, diverse urban community of approximately 110,000 people that is home to academic institutions and a major life science sector. The city is part of the Boston metropolitan area, and like a lot of New England cities, Cambridge is dense and tightly packed.  Approximately 60 percent of Cambridge’s land area is impervious – covered by buildings and pavement – with some areas having sparse amounts of public shading and tree cover, which contributes to the UHI Effect. Perhaps the worst suffering is being experienced by residents in neighborhoods with a particularly low percentage of tree canopy cover. Although the heat vulnerability problem is emerging since Cambridge currently has a cold weather climate, climate projections demonstrate a shift towards overall hotter temperatures during the summer months along with increasing humidity. According to Part 1 of the City of Cambridge’s Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment (CCVA), which focuses on the increasing risks of heat and flooding, the annual number of days with temperatures over 90 degrees Fahrenheit (90°F) may triple in Cambridge by 2030. By 2070, Cambridge may experience nearly three months of temperatures over 90°F, compared with less than two weeks in present day. Climate change poses a threat to Cambridge’s infrastructure, public services, public health, and economic well-being, so in light of these projections, the city is planning ahead.


Cambridge is working to plan and prepare for the impacts of climate change. The city is currently in the midst of developing a citywide Climate Change Preparedness & Resilience (CCPR) Plan, which is anticipated for an early 2020 release date. The premise of the CCPR Plan is that climate change is already happening and ignoring it is no longer an option for Cambridge. The city is currently designed based on the past climate. Community leaders want to design it to be adapted to the future and transform city to be better equipped to handle climate change.


As part of the CCVA and CCPR Plan, the City has developed projections for temperature, precipitation, and sea level out to 2030 and 2070. The CCPR Plan is developing strategies to reduce the Urban Heat Island Effect, mainly by replacing impervious surfaces with vegetated surfaces, restoring and expanding urban forest canopy, and deploying physical shading and reflective surfaces. To ensure that the CCPR Plan is effective, the City is developing metrics that can be tracked to guide and adjust implementation over time. The City is currently able to measure and track impervious surface area and canopy cover, but does not have the capability to track changes in surface albedo.


The main objective of this project is to develop a methodology to track changes in albedo over time to enable evaluation of whether the City is successfully reducing the Urban Heat Island Effect. The community would like this methodology to be replicable, practical, affordable, and consistent.  More specifically, the community is interested in determining:


  • How to measure albedo
  • What data sources are needed and available
  • What calculations can be done to assess albedo and how
  • What indicators can be used to make a judgement for progress in Cambridge’s climate CCPR Plan


Cambridge is an engaged community in which stakeholders and the public are very involved with, and knowledgeable of, the planning processes and the proceedings of city government. Advisory committees, focus groups, public meetings have all been used to involve stakeholders and the public in the development of the CCVA and CCPR, and the community leaders are keen on maintaining this level of collaboration with the community.


A common issue with city planning is that many plans are conceived but do not come to fruition. The community would like to see a set of real expectations facilitated by measurable projects that are shared with the larger community in a clear and accessible manner. It is important to the city that this project serves as an example for how transparency can pave the way for true progress in city planning, and how collaborative visions for the future can transform their city into one better adapted to handle the inevitable effects of climate change.

About the Community

John Bolduc is an Environmental Planner for Cambridge’s Community Development Department.
Drew Kane is the Senior Urban Planner for the City of Cambridge. They will be co-community leads and will work closely together throughout the duration of the project.


As community leads, John and Drew will iterate with the scientist for about 2-3 hours a week to help the scientist see how their proposed method integrates with local planning processes. John and Drew will also work to connect the scientist to any necessary community or outside partners to facilitate the creation of the methodology and the process of presenting the methodology in a larger community context.

Project Team

Community Leads

Drew Kane is the Land Use Planner at the City of Cambridge Community Development Department. Prior to the City of Cambridge, he worked as a consultant in architecture and planning firms in Atlanta, New York and Boston. Drew’s areas of expertise includes public realm design, master planning, and regulatory development with an interest in waterfronts, resilience, and urban industrial districts. He is currently working on implementation of the recent citywide plan, Envision Cambridge, which serves as the city’s roadmap for inclusive and sustainable growth to the year 2030.


John R. Bolduc is an environmental planner with the City of Cambridge Community Development Department where he manages climate change initiatives. He manages the City’s Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment and the Climate Change Preparedness and Resilience Plan; coordinates the Climate Protection Action Committee, an advisory group to the City Manager on local climate change policy and implementation; administers the Building Energy Use Disclosure Ordinance; and participates in a range of other municipal sustainability efforts. John has been with the City of Cambridge since 1997 and has over 30 years of experience in municipal sustainability and environmental protection. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of California at Davis and a Master of Arts from Tufts University in Urban and Environmental Policy.

Community Science Fellow

Julia Jeanty is a 2018 graduate from the University of Florida with a dual degree in Environmental Geosciences and Sustainability Studies, as well as certificates in Geospatial Information Analysis and Meteorology and Climatology. Most recently, Julia worked at the American Geosciences Institute as a Geoscience Policy Intern, and then as a Talent Pool Intern at the American Geophysical Union.

Scientist Wanted

The City of Cambridge is seeking a scientist(s) whose role is to develop a methodology to track changes in albedo over time to enable evaluation of whether the City is successfully reducing the Urban Heat Island Effect. The community stresses the importance of having a scientist who is capable of applying their working knowledge of physical science in the context of city planning and urban sustainability. This scientist must be able and willing to communicate the methodology that they create to multiple audiences. Through presentations, webinars, and reports, the scientist(s) should be able to distill information down in a digestible way so that the methodology can be replicated at large by various community collaborators and partners.

Thriving Earth Exchange asks all scientific partners to work with the community to help define a project with concrete local impact that they can contribute to as pro-bono volunteers and collaborators. This work can also position the scientists and communities to seek additional funding, together, for the next stage.


Desired Skills and Expertise

  • Knowledge and experience in urban climatology and/or geography
  • Knowledge of city planning and urban sustainability
  • Understanding of the processes and dynamics of a city
  • Experience with collaborating with municipalities or government agencies
  • Working knowledge of climate change adaptation efforts
  • Proactive and capable of moving the project along without pressure
  • Ability to work collaboratively
  • Comfortable with presenting information to a lay audience
  • Comfortable with distilling complex information into digestible formats
  • Passionate about climate change adaptation
  • Willingness to connect science to local concerns
  • Desire to present methodology to community and beyond (in person and virtually)

Interested in volunteering? Apply now!



Development of the methodology will begin as soon as possible (November 2019), with the objective of meeting a soft deadline for June 2020.

A series of presentations and/or webinars are anticipated to take place after the methodology is finalized.