Talking about the weather is our national obsession – practically a sport – here in the UK. Yet increasingly these conversations have a melancholy edge, as global warming casts a shadow over each unseasonably sunny day. The rising temperatures can tip into extreme heat events – often proving fatal – and can be a particular problem for cities, where the density of people, traffic and manmade structures create and trap warmth. So, what is the forecast for our urban hotspots?
Feeling the burn
According to the World Economic Forum, cities are home to more than half of the world’s population, consume more than 75% of its energy and contribute disproportionately to its carbon emissions. If we continue as we are, the Earth’s temperature could rise by 3°C by the end of the century, causing raised sea levels, flooding and drought.
The good news is that while national initiatives can be drowned by bureaucracy, individual cities are often able to respond more quickly and innovatively. In this way, they are vital to meeting the 2015 Paris Agreement, where governments committed to keeping the climate as constant as possible and reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
So with temperatures and water levels creeping up, how are the innovators keeping our cities afloat? Let’s take a closer look.
Roots of change
Some of the most interesting solutions to climate change stem from nature rather than manmade infrastructure. The Mayor of London is exploring Stockholm tree pits, for example, which emerged from the city of the same name. In combination with permeable pavements, the rubble-based pits allow water to flow through and nourish the plant, creating a near-natural drainage system that can reduce flooding and even purify water. The UK capital is also pushing to create more plant-covered walls and roofs, while Chicago offers grants for companies who choose green roofs amongst other eco options.
Sometimes it’s the simple measures that prove most effective, such as painting buildings white to reflect the sunshine and reduce internal temperatures. At the other end of the scale, today’s architects are creating more intelligent, self-sufficient structures with rainwater harvesting, low-energy cooling methods and photovoltaic technology (that’s solar panels to you and me).
When it comes to carbon, transport is now the highest-emitting sector in the UK, and it is currently way off course for meeting the objectives of the Paris Agreement. The rise of electric vehicles will go some way to alleviating this, but urban planners are also thinking of ways to reduce congestion and make the best use of vehicles on the road. We can all help with this by choosing a carbon neutral taxi company that utilises existing vehicles rather than adding more cars. The roads themselves can be improved, too, with surfaces that allow heat to permeate and dissipate, while back in eco-conscious Stockholm, there’s another innovation afoot: smart roads. These electrified lanes allow cars to charge while they drive, evoking a Scalextric track.
A robust public transport system is vital to safeguarding our planet’s future, since switching to a car-free lifestyle is one of the top behavioural changes you can make to tackle the climate crisis, according to one study. But the underground trains that help us zip across many big cities are also major heat sources – as any commuter on London’s red-hot Central Line knows. TfL’s innovative solutions include reusing heat for nearby structures and recycling energy generated by the brakes to power other trains. In addition, it’s rolling out buses with tinted windows to keep the sun’s rays at bay and insulated engines that stop warmth from escaping into the air.
Sometimes referred to as the ‘green lungs’ of a city, parks also provide cool spaces where heat-stressed people can get a breath of fresh air. The trees provide shade and shelter from the sun while also breaking up the heat bubble caused by tall, dense infrastructure. It’s not just about integrating green spaces, either: wetlands have a role to play in cities that struggle with flooding and drainage. American architect Kristina Hill uses the term ‘cyborg landscapes’ to describe this hybrid approach, where the built environment blends with natural elements to live in harmony with an evolving landscape.
While there are many reasons to be optimistic about urban planning, it’s important to remember that no solution will work in isolation. Cities – and, by extension, our global community – exist as an ecosystem and we all need to work together to reach ‘net zero’. We must leave the car at home when we don’t need it, choose companies that chime with our values and keep making our voices heard at a local and governmental level. With a combination of legislative change, behavioural adjustments and urban innovation, our cities could survive and thrive for decades to come.
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Image credits: iStock