Cities are death traps in extreme heat – but they don’t have to be – POLITICO


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Cities are particularly deadly during a heat wave, but deaths are not inevitable.

As temperature records plummet across the continent, the death toll from extreme heat is starting to become apparent. Last Friday, for example, a municipal cleaner in Madrid died of heat stroke while working outdoors in temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius. On Saturday, another worker died after spending several hours in a warehouse where temperatures exceeded 46°C.

This matches a pattern of previous extreme heat events where fatalities are more likely to occur in urban “heat islands”, due to concrete, asphalt and metal structures absorbing heat and giving it back. During the heat wave of 2003, Paris experienced mortality rates 142% higher than those usually expected between July and September.

“The build-up of heat in heat islands is so intense – and the release of heat from materials is so slow – that these areas fail to cool at night,” said Birgit Georgi, a climate adaptation expert who advises Urbact of the EU. program. “As a result, people in these areas have to deal with constant and unbearable high temperatures.”

While city dwellers are most at risk during a heat wave, not all cities are equally dangerous.

“People living in cities that have invested in green infrastructure — parks and gardens, green facades, sustainable cooling and water management strategies — are less likely to be affected,” Georgi said.

Vienna is ahead of most European cities in adopting changes to mitigate the effects of extreme heat. It first addressed the threat in a climate plan drawn up in 1999. And in 2018, it became one of the first cities in Europe to implement a strategy to identify and combat urban heat.

“We knew Vienna would likely be hit hard by the climate crisis due to its location, with scientists predicting temperatures would rise by five to six degrees over the next two decades,” said Jürgen Czernohorszky, city executive councilor for the climate. “We are using our planning plan to work with districts on a transition to prevent heat islands.”

The municipal government’s heat strategy includes subsidies for green roofs and facades as well as targeted investments in public infrastructure. These range from a misting sprinkler system that activates when it gets hot; a new cycle lane system to get more heat-producing cars off the road; and a commitment to plant 4,500 new trees each year.

The city has also chosen to retain existing infrastructure which now proves useful: Vienna’s extensive network of municipal swimming pools built by the city in the 1920s, for example, means that residents are never too far from where they can cool off. . And while many cities have gotten rid of public fountains, there are more than 1,000 in the Austrian capital.

Go green

Other cities are following suit. In 2019, Paris unveiled its “cool island” network of parks, museums, public buildings and places of worship where residents can take refuge on hot days. Almost all Parisians now live less than seven minutes from these spots, which they can locate using a free application.

An urban farm on the roof of a building in Paris | Benjamin Cremel/AFP via Getty Images

Local leaders in the German cities of Nuremberg and Mainz have tried to reduce the heat generated by the tram lines that criss-cross their towns by covering them with grass.

Madrid’s municipal strategy, adopted in 2019, focused on expanding forest cover throughout the city and creating a new 75-kilometre-long green belt that stretches around the city. Mariano Fuentes, the city’s urban development alderman, said thermographic images showed ground temperatures in nearby areas had been reduced by 2C in just two years.

“In the city, we’ve phased out the use of asphalt on the streets and moved to less bituminous materials that don’t absorb as much heat,” Fuentes said. “[We’ve] invested more than 48 million euros to green vacant land, set up programs to incentivize private investment in green roofs and facades, and encouraged the construction of near-zero energy buildings.”

During the current heat wave, Fuentes said the city has opened climate shelters in public libraries and air-conditioned community centers and set up an app to facilitate faster access to Madrid’s heavily subsidized municipal swimming pools.

“By allowing people to buy these tickets online, we’re saving them 10-15 minutes of waiting in the sun, which can have an impact when it’s so hot,” he added.

In response to the city cleaner’s heat-related death on Friday, Fuentes said his centrist Ciudadanos party would also seek to submit a motion to Madrid’s city assembly this week calling for a new protocol to be established to ensure that public employees are not required to work in extreme conditions. “It is not acceptable for someone to work outside on an afternoon when the temperature is above 42 degrees,” he said.

The frontline worker’s death underscores that social class is a significant risk factor when cities experience extreme heat. The historical neglect of urban planning in low-income neighborhoods can often mean that their residents have limited access to properly insulated housing, green space, and public infrastructure like libraries or heated swimming pools.

Epidemiologist Julio Díaz, director of the Climate Change, Health and Urban Environment Reference Unit at Spain’s National School of Health, said the analysis showed that the effects on heat-related health were more pronounced in lower-income neighborhoods of Madrid.

“Enduring a heat wave in an air-conditioned chalet with a swimming pool is not the same as enduring it in a room with five people and a single window as the only source of fresh air. It is obvious that social inequalities have a weight. You are more likely to die because of your ZIP code than because of your genetic background,” he said.

Fuentes says that although all European cities are now facing rising temperatures, European leaders need to be more aware of the impact of extreme heat on urban centers in the south.

“Continental cities do not face the same threats as Mediterranean cities,” he said. “Up there they have a devastating heat wave from time to time: here they are already much more frequent and they will only intensify.”

This means that urban heat must be included in the “political conversation” at European level, he said. “If we want our cities to be resilient, we will all have a lot more ambition in the fight against this threat.”

Cities are death traps in extreme heat - but they don't have to be - POLITICO

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