Cooling down cities could make a big difference to global warming

Image: russavia via Flickr.

Cities may only occupy about 2 per cent of the world’s habitable land, but they are big drivers of global climate change. That's because they're usually hotter than rural areas; a phenomenon which is known as the “urban heat island" effect. 

Cities are hotter for a number of reasons. Traffic pollution creates a greenhouse effect that keeps heat in at night. The lack of trees, meanwhile, means cities lose their ability to absorb heat and convert it into nutrients. Paving and tarmac quickly release the heat they retain back into the air, and rainwater has to be drained away in sewer systems, which deprives the area of the cooling effect of rain-soaked soil.

Then there are people. They both generate body heat and heat buildings to keep themselves warm – or use air-conditioning to cool them down. Aircon means they are transferring warmer air into the streets outside, so it adds to the city’s warmth just as much as heating systems would. 

As cities expand in size and more people live in them, these warming factors have gradually been exacerbated. In the south of England, the difference between rural areas and London is as much as 6°C. In Glasgow, where the population has been on the decline until recently, the difference can still be as much as 8°C.

In hotter parts of the world, the situation is reaching breaking point. Colombo in Sri Lanka has seen people migrating away in substantial numbers to live in cooler areas. The searing heat in Phoenix, Arizona, may prevent the city from continued expansion. Even in more temperate cities like London or Paris, unexpected heatwaves can kill hundreds and even thousands of people.

Phoenix, Arizona. Image: DPPed  at WIkimedia Commons.

The global warming debate

Discussions about global warming tend to overlook the contribution of urban growth to the problem, and instead concentrate on what is happening to the temperature across the world.

Policy developers aiming to fight global warming overlook the fact that by focusing on ways to make cities cooler, they might contribute in a big way to the solution – perhaps much more so than by focusing on global carbon-reduction agreements that either fail or end up badly watered down. Given the forecasts for climate change out to 2050, this it's beginning to look like policymakers have missed a trick when it comes to cities.

The good news is that cities have been living with the effects of local warming for decades. By observing different cities around the world, we can see what needs to happen – the problem lies in getting those cities that do less to focus on doing more.

One size doesn’t fit all

The solutions in hotter and cooler climates are different. Research in warm, humid Colombo shows excessive amounts of solar radiation. But because of the availability of abundant water from year-round rainfall and a large amount of urban vegetation, there is much less temperature difference between the city centre and rural surroundings. This suggests that were this not in place, the migration problem could be even worse.

The research found that you a big difference can be made to the climate in tropical cities, whether humid or arid, through shade.

Colombo, Sri Lanka would be far warmer were it not for all the tree cover. Image: Diana Montero Melis.

This is not about shading buildings per se (nor is this desirable) but to encourage an urban geometry that makes the spaces between buildings naturally shaded without compromising buildings' ability to draw in the sunlight as and when required.

Achieving this when the tropical sun is so high in the sky means that you have to use an intelligent combination of building heights and geometry together with elements such as canopies, awnings and urban vegetation.

With care and attention to detail, built-up areas can combine good shading with generous urban vegetation to cool neighbourhoods to temperatures that are even below those of rural areas. This is good news given the continued acceleration of urban growth in many tropical cities and rising concentrations of people. And even a couple of degrees' difference can make a city unbearable in an area that is already hot.

London and New York are a good examples of what cities in cooler areas can do to make a difference. Their heat island policies include things like planning requirements to plant trees, reduce paved areas in parking lots and reduce traffic. But these sorts of policies are still quite rare across the board, and you rarely see similar policies in hotter climes. Singapore is one of very few tropical cities that prioritise traffic control, for example.

Finally a word on colder cities such as Glasgow, where I am based and have been involved in work aiming to cool down the city. This may not seem very necessary when the temperature is not particularly high, but we need to bear in mind that it is likely to get hotter in the coming decades. For example our simulations suggest that if you increase tree cover by 20 per cent, you could eliminate a third to half of the expected urban heat increase by 2050. This sort of intervention is well worth considering.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Rohinton Emmanuel is a Professor of Sustainable Design & Construction at Glasgow Caledonian University.

 
 
 
 

What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.