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Cities Build Splash Pads To Cool Off Residents In Areas Unaccustomed To Hot Weather

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The northern U.S. is better known for its cold winters rather than blistering summers. But as climate change warms the whole country, a growing number of usually cool communities are adding new simple ways for people to try to beat the heat. From member station WCMU in Mount Pleasant, Mich., Brett Dahlberg reports.

BRETT DAHLBERG, BYLINE: With just a bit more than 4,000 residents, Caro is the biggest city in Tuscola County, about 100 miles north of Detroit. There's a growing danger from heat waves in the patchwork of rural communities like this one all across Michigan. In the state's largest local health department, heat-related pediatric emergency room visits have almost doubled in just the last couple of years. Caro is landlocked, surrounded by farms to the north and woods to the south. But today city manager Matt Lane is ready to get drenched.

MATT LANE: If you hear blood-curdling screams of just freezing water touching my skin, that's...

DAHLBERG: Yeah.

LANE: Fear not. It's fine.

DAHLBERG: Lane has traded in his shirt and tie for a swimsuit to try out the city's new splash pad. He takes a deep breath and steps into the cold spray on a day when the temperature is pushing 90 degrees. He's headed for an oversized bucket about four feet tall and almost as wide in diameter perched on a tower of pipes and fountains. Lane asks the kids playing here where to stand.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Over there more.

LANE: Over there?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Yes, right here.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Water.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER RUSHING)

DAHLBERG: Lane says this new public water feature is a way for kids to get out their energy on hot days. Shelley Vollmar says it's working. She's here with her daughter and niece.

SHELLEY VOLLMAR: It's pretty cool. I can't get them to leave (laughter). They don't want to go.

DAHLBERG: Splash pads like this are popping up in some surprising places in small cities across the northern U.S. Burlington, N.D., Rothschild, Wis., and Sartell, Minn., have all recently installed splash pads.

NIKKI SWEETER: This has been a perfect summer to have our first year with the splash pad because it's been really hot. Gosh, we sat at 90 quite a few days this year.

DAHLBERG: Nikki Sweeter organizes community engagement for Sartell. She says those once-rare 90-degree days are more common now than she remembers. In an odd twist, it's actually been so hot and dry this summer that the new splash pad has had to close.

SWEETER: For the past couple of weeks, it's been closed completely just because of the drought.

DAHLBERG: Sweeter says adjusting to climate change was not the top reason for building the water feature, but climate resiliency is a bonus. Cooper Martin is the director of sustainability at the National League of Cities and says those of every size need to be thinking about the health effects of climate change.

COOPER MARTIN: Heat is the most dangerous sort of climate change attribute. It kills the most people. It puts people in hospitals.

DAHLBERG: Martin says since small cities don't likely have the funds for huge adjustments to their infrastructure, they have to adapt to climate change on a budget.

MARTIN: We're always talking about important things that they can do in their communities for not a terribly large sum of money that reduces the heat risk.

DAHLBERG: Things like planting more trees for shade or using lighter-colored pavements to reflect heat or these splash pads to help residents cool down. Martin says while the federal government takes on big marquee projects like massive solar farms and smart electrical grids, it's important for cities, however small, to protect their residents from the dangers of a warming world. And part of that effort will be to build places where they can get huge buckets of water dumped on their heads.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Yay.

DAHLBERG: For NPR News, I'm Brett Dahlberg.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Soaking wet.

(SOUNDBITE OF STRFKR SONG, "GOLDEN LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.