How ‘Heat Agents’ Plan to Help Cities Survive Ever Hotter Summers
Politicians and policy makers worry about what increasingly extreme weather will mean for the health of communities. To deal with the problem, some cities have appointed “heat officers” or similar officials to help adjust to the new reality.
Climate change will continue to intensify heat waves and droughts. Heat is known as the silent killer: without the visual cues of other extreme weather events, such as floods and hurricanes, it can be difficult to recognize health hazard before it’s too late.
What extreme heat does to the human body
The heat can be especially deadly in cities. Dark roofs absorb heat and warm the buildings they cover. The glass in office building windows reflects sunlight onto the streets below, where the hard, dry streets and sidewalks bake in the sun. Narrow roads and tall buildings block cooling winds.
All this contributes to the urban heat island effect, in which densely built urban areas with limited greenery literally become hotspots. On these “islands,” daytime temperatures are about 1 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit higher than those in outlying areas, and nighttime temperatures 2 to 5 degrees higher, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.
“We just didn’t build for these temperatures,” said Kathy Baughman McLeod, director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, which started a project three years ago to encourage municipal or regional governments to appoint heating managers, empowered to propose innovative and local solutions. The initiative began in Miami-Dade County, where Jane Gilbert was named to the world’s first such position last year. Cities like Athens and Santiago have followed suit.
We built a fake metropolis to show how extreme heat can destroy cities
Outside of this project, climate-focused officials in other cities are carrying out similar work to build cooler, more resilient metropolises.
Here’s how four cities around the world are trying to beat the heat.
Ancient architecture in Athens
The summer in Athens was mild compared to last year, when a record heat wave brought triple-digit temperatures and wildfire smoke. But the Greek capital still had the opportunity to test a new early warning system for heat waves.
Extreme heat, which is “completely invisible” and “pernicious”, is the biggest problem climate change has caused in Athens, said Eleni Myrivili, who was named the city’s first heat manager last year. . (She recently became UN Habitat’s Global Chief Heat Officer.)
Working with the Arsht-Rock Center, Myrivili realized that “it would be a game-changer if we started categorizing heat waves.”
The city worked with a team of meteorologists to develop a model capable of predicting heat waves based on past weather conditions. Using this data, Athens has created a system that divides heat waves into four categories based on their risk to human health.
When temperatures pushed the city into Category 1 this summer — the second-lowest, but still dangerous, tier — city officials sent warning messages on social media and directly to residents’ phones, as well as to employees of organizations that work with vulnerable communities. . City employees have set up a hotline for residents seeking assistance.
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A separate project looks to the ancient past in an attempt to create a fresher future. Built around 140 AD, Hadrian’s Aqueduct, named after the Roman emperor who commissioned it, carried water through a 12-mile tunnel under Athens for nearly 2,000 years. The aqueduct was once a source of drinking water, but waste has rendered the water unusable in recent decades, causing large amounts of water to spill into the sea.
Now officials have a plan to use the water to irrigate a new corridor of vegetation through the city. New green spaces, which also include mini “pocket parks”, will help bring down temperatures by providing shade and humidity.
Thermal shelters in Barcelona
Green spaces are at the heart of Barcelona’s efforts to keep people safe in extreme heat. It’s an increasingly pressing need in the bustling city in northeastern Spain, according to Eloi Badia, deputy mayor for climate issues.
The elderly, babies and people with respiratory problems are particularly vulnerable to high temperatures, Badia said. In 2020, the city began creating a network of shelters to relieve the heat. The maps list the roughly 200 points across the city, some of which are indoor centers with air conditioning and staff trained to provide advice on health effects.
Parks and gardens with water fountains and plenty of shade are also on the list. Their numbers continue to grow as authorities add nearly 100 acres of green space to the city every four years.
Covered markets in Freetown
In Sierra Leone, climate change, including increased heat, is contributing to rapid urbanization. Much of the population is dependent on subsistence farming, and with deteriorating agricultural conditions, many people are moving to cities.
But this migration drives deforestation and compounds the heat problem, according to Eugenia Kargbo, heat manager in Freetown, the capital of the West African country.
“You see the impact — it’s really, really visible. The only challenge we have is that there’s not a lot of focus on the situation,” she said.
The heat doesn’t have the same impact on residents, and much of Kargbo’s work focuses on protecting the most vulnerable. Thirty-five percent of Freetown’s 1.2 million residents live in informal settlements poorly equipped for high temperatures. In newly urbanized areas, many women engage in informal trading, selling vegetables and fruit at one of Freetown’s 42 markets. More than a dozen of these markets are open air, where women stand in the sun all day and “suffer immense losses” as their fresh produce perishes in the heat.
Kargbo is working with the Arsht-Rock Center to add shade cover to these markets, in a project launched on Friday. About 11,000 women – buyers and sellers – will benefit, she said.
“The model uses a simple heat-resistant material to provide shade, but also incorporates the solar light installation,” Kargbo said.
Urban forests, green roofs in Santiago
With more than 8 million inhabitants, the Chilean capital region is home to 40% of the country’s population. “Everything that happens here has an impact on a lot of people,” said Cristina Huidobro, the metropolitan area’s first heat manager, planning for the upcoming season as winter draws to a close.
The city, which has been plagued by drought for more than a decade, is dotted with urban heat islands, many of which are in low-income areas.
Poorer communities are also “more vulnerable to heat and all its impacts,” Huidobro said. “That’s why we are working to solve this problem with a massive tree forest program next year.”
In addition to the $2 million urban forest program, the Santiago region is rolling out a green roof pilot project. Green roofs, which consist of a layer of vegetation planted on a flat or nearly flat roof, absorb less heat than traditional dark roof surfaces and provide insulation that reduces the amount of heat that seeps into the building.
First step in Santiago: 10,700 square feet of green roofing to be installed above a hospital.
Authorities chose the site in part as a gesture to health workers, who have worked very hard during the pandemic, Huidobro said. But patients will also benefit, she added, because “having a green environment has been proven to help the healing process.”