With a population of just over 4,000 people, Caro is the biggest city in Tuscola County, in the southwest of Michigan’s thumb. Surrounded by farm fields to the north and woods to the south, the community is landlocked.
There was precious little opportunity for cooling off in the water here before this summer, but now, City Manager Matt Lane is standing in the city park wearing a swimsuit.
“I do usually wear slacks and a button-up shirt — something a little more demure, you know? Professional,” he said. “Today I traded that in for my swim trunks.”
Lane was at the park because Caro’s parks and recreation adviser Sean Smith challenged him to get drenched by the giant bucket perched atop the city’s new splash pad.
About 4 feet tall and almost as wide in diameter, the bucket is supported by a tower of pipes and fountains spraying cool water on a day when the temperature is pushing 90 degrees. Every few minutes, it tips on its hinges and drenches anyone below.
“If you hear blood-curdling screams of just freezing water touching my skin,” Lane warned, “fear not. I’ll be fine.”
He asked the kids playing among the spraying pipes where the water from the bucket would fall.
“Over there most!” one yelled back with a helpful point in the right direction.
“Yeah, right here!” another corroborated.
Lane stood under the bucket and got soaked. Kids laughed and shrieked.
“That was pretty fun, actually,” Lane said a few moments after his soaking.
Filling an Unmet Need
As he dried off, Smith, the parks and rec adviser, explained why the city decided to install the splash pad. Construction finished last year, he said, so this is the first summer that the facility is open.
He said it’s packed just about every day, which means the city has met a need that was previously unfulfilled.
“I worked with after school programs. I worked with Girl Scouts, and we’re always sending them out of our communities to do fun things,” said Smith. “Caro just needs good parks and rec opportunities for its citizens, and a splash pad is a great way to do that.”
Shelley Vollmer agreed. She was at the splash park with her daughter and niece. (They were some of the children who helped Lane find where the bucket dumps its water.)
“It’s pretty cool,” Vollmer said. “I can’t get them to leave. They don’t want to go!”
Splash pads like this one have been proliferating in small cities across Mid- and Northern Michigan. Caro, Port Austin and Greenville all opened theirs this year. Evart opened one last year. Shepherd, Bad Axe and Big Rapids are planning to inaugurate theirs next year.
Local officials in those communities said the reasoning was simple: The installations were about giving families a safe place to have fun in the summer.
Adapting to Climate Change
But people who study how cities are responding to climate change said there might be a bigger reason behind the trend.
“For any city, small, large, heat is the most dangerous climate change attribute. It kills the most people. It puts people in hospitals,” said Cooper Martin, the sustainability director at the National League of Cities.
Martin said small cities like those in Mid- and Northern Michigan often don’t have the funds for huge adjustments to their economies or infrastructure that large cities do, so they need to adapt to climate change on a budget.
“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,” Martin said.
“Climate change is recognized as one of the greatest threats to public health. Climate change is a risk multiplier that can exacerbate existing health conditions … particularly for underserved and vulnerable communities.” –Lynn Sutfin, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services
While the federal government takes on marquee projects like building massive solar farms and smart electrical grids, he said it’s important for cities — however small they are — to protect their residents from the danger of a warming world.
Data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services show that’s growing increasingly important locally.
In District Health Department No. 10, which covers 10 counties in a rural swath of Michigan, heat-related pediatric emergency room visits almost doubled between 2018 and 2019.
The state health department said an increase in heat-related illnesses is one of the primary concerns that comes with climate change, and a spokesperson said the department is working with local communities to help them prepare.
“Climate change is recognized as one of the greatest threats to public health,” Lynn Sutfin wrote in an email to WCMU News. “Climate change is a risk multiplier that can exacerbate existing health conditions … particularly for underserved and vulnerable communities.”
Issues of equity help explain the importance and appeal of splash pads, said Martin. “Their price makes them available to many communities.”