Urban growth, heat islands, humidity: the cost of climate change is multiplying in tropical cities

Manila. Image: Getty.

Some 60 per cent of the planet’s expected urban area by 2030 is yet to be built. This forecast highlights how rapidly the world’s people are becoming urban. Cities now occupy about 2 per cent of the world’s land area, but are home to about 55 per cent of the world’s people and generate more than 70 per cent of global GDP, plus the associated greenhouse gas emissions.

So what does this mean for people who live in the tropical zones, where 40 per cent of the world’s population lives? On current trends, this figure will rise to 50 per cent by 2050. With tropical economies growing some 20 per cent faster than the rest of the world, the result is a swift expansion of tropical cities.

Population and number of cities of the world, by size class, 1990, 2018 and 2030. Image: World Urbanization Prospects 2018, United Nations DESA Population Division.

The populations of these growing tropical cities already experience high temperatures made worse by high humidity. This means they are highly vulnerable to extreme heat events as a result of climate change.

For example, extremely hot weather overwhelmed Cairns last summer. By December 3 2018, the city had recorded temperatures above 35°C nine days in a row. Four consecutive days were above 40°C.

Cairns’ heatwave summer. Image: authors, using BOM temperature data.

For our research, temperature and humidity sensors were strategically placed in the Cairns CBD to represent people’s experience of weather at street level. These recorded temperatures consistently higher than the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) recordings, reaching 45°C at some points.

Highest temperatures recorded by James Cook University weather data sensors during the November-December 2018 heatwave in Cairns. Image: Bronson Philippa/author provided.

Local effects magnify heatwave impacts

Urban environments in general are hotter than non-urbanised surroundings that are covered by vegetation. The trapping of heat in cities, known as the urban heat island effect, has impacts on human health, animal life, social events, tourism, water availability and business performance.

The urban heat island effect intensifies the impacts of increasing heatwaves on cities as a result of climate change.

Projections of increased heatwave frequency for Cairns region using visualisation platform on Queensland Future Climate Dashboard. Image: Queensland Future Climate Dashboard/Queensland Government.

But it is important to remember that other local factors also influence these impacts. These include the scale, shape, materials, composition and growth of the built environment in a particular location and its surrounding areas.

The differences between the BoM data recorded at Cairns airport and the inner-city recordings show the impacts of urban expansion patterns, built form and choice of materials in tropical cities.

The linear layout of Cairns has, on one hand, enabled the formation of attractive places for commercial activities. As these activity centres evolve into focal points of urban life, they in turn influence all sorts of socioeconomic parameters.

On the other hand, the form the built environment takes changes the patterns of wind, sun and shade. These changes alter the urban microclimate by trapping heat and slowing or channelling air movements.

The layout and structures of Cairns CBD alter local microclimates by trapping heat and altering air flows. Image: State of Queensland 2019.

Shifting the focus to the tropics

To date, a large body of research has explored the undesired consequences of climate change and urban heat islands. However, the focus has been on capital and metropolitan cities with humid continental climates. Not many studies have looked at the economic and social impacts in the tropical context, where hot and humid conditions create extra heat stress.

Add the combined effects of climate change and urban heat islands and what are the socio-economic consequences of heatwaves in a tropical city like Cairns? We see that climate change adds another dimension to the relationship between cities, economic growth and development.

This presents a huge opportunity to start thinking about building cities that are not superficially greenwashed, but which instead tackle pressing issues such as climate variability and create sustainable business and social destinations.

In cold climates, heatwaves and urban heat islands are not necessarily undesired, but their negative impacts are more obvious and harmful in warmer climates. And these harmful impacts of heatwaves on our economy, environment and society are on the rise.

We have scientific evidence of the increasing length, frequency and intensity of heatwaves. The number of record hot days in Australia has doubled in the past five decades.

Projections of changes in heatwave frequency for northern Queensland in 2030 and 2070. Image: Queensland Future Climate Dashboard/Queensland Government.

What are the costs of heatwaves?

Increased exposure to heatwaves amplifies the adverse economic impacts on industries that are reliant on the health of their outdoor workers. This is in addition to the extreme heat-related fatalities and health-care costs of heatwave-related medical emergencies. As a PwC report to the Commonwealth on extreme heat events stated:

Heatwaves kill more Australians than any other natural disaster. They have received far less public attention than cyclones, floods or bushfires — they are private, silent deaths, which only hit the media when morgues reach capacity or infrastructure fails.

Heat also has direct impacts on economic production. A 2010 study found a 1°C increase resulted in a 2.4 per cent reduction in non-agricultural production and a 0.1 per cent reduction in agricultural production in 28 Caribbean-basin countries. Another study in 2012 found an 8 per cent weekly loss of production when the temperature exceeded 32°C for six days in a row.

The 2017 Farm performance and climate report by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) states:

The recent changes in climate have had a significant negative effect on the productivity of Australian cropping farms, particularly in southwestern Australia and southeastern Australia.

Average climate effect on productivity of cropping farms in southwestern and southeastern Australia since 2000–01 (relative to average conditions from 1914–15 to 2014–15). Image: Farm performance and climate, ABARES.

It’s not just farming that is vulnerable. A Victorian government report report this year estimated an extreme heatwave event costs the state’s construction sector A$103 million. The impact of heatwaves on the city of Melbourne’s economy is estimated at A$52.9 million a year on average.

Impacts of heatwaves on Victoria’s main economic sectors. Image: State of Victoria Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.

According to this report, economic costs increase exponentially as the severity of heatwaves increases. This has obvious implications for cities in tropical regions.

As the next step in our research, we are examining the relationship between local urban features, urban heat islands, the resulting city temperatures and their direct and indirect (spillover) effects on local and regional economic activities.

Taha Chaiechi, Senior Lecturer, James Cook University and Silvia Tavares, Lecturer in Urban Design, James Cook University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


 

 
 
 
 

Green roofs improve cities – so why don’t all buildings have them?

The green roof at the Kennedy Centre, Washington DC. Image: Getty.

Rooftops covered with grass, vegetable gardens and lush foliage are now a common sight in many cities around the world. More and more private companies and city authorities are investing in green roofs, drawn to their wide-ranging benefits which include savings on energy costs, mitigating the risk from floods, creating habitats for urban wildlife, tackling air pollution and urban heat and even producing food.

A recent report in the UK suggested that the green roof market there is expanding at a rate of 17 per cent each year. The world’s largest rooftop farm will open in Paris in 2020, superseding similar schemes in New York City and Chicago. Stuttgart, in Germany, is thought of as “the green roof capital of Europe”, while Singapore is even installing green roofs on buses.

These increasingly radical urban designs can help cities adapt to the monumental challenges they face, such as access to resources and a lack of green space due to development. But buy-in from city authorities, businesses and other institutions is crucial to ensuring their success – as is research investigating different options to suit the variety of rooftop spaces found in cities.

A growing trend

The UK is relatively new to developing green roofs, and governments and institutions are playing a major role in spreading the practice. London is home to much of the UK’s green roof market, mainly due to forward-thinking policies such as the 2008 London Plan, which paved the way to more than double the area of green roofs in the capital.

Although London has led the way, there are now “living labs” at the Universities of Sheffield and Salford which are helping to establish the precedent elsewhere. The IGNITION project – led by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority – involves the development of a living lab at the University of Salford, with the aim of uncovering ways to convince developers and investors to adopt green roofs.

Ongoing research is showcasing how green roofs can integrate with living walls and sustainable drainage systems on the ground, such as street trees, to better manage water and make the built environment more sustainable.

Research is also demonstrating the social value of green roofs. Doctors are increasingly prescribing time spent gardening outdoors for patients dealiong with anxiety and depression. And research has found that access to even the most basic green spaces can provide a better quality of life for dementia sufferers and help prevent obesity.

An edible roof at Fenway Park, stadium of the Boston Red Sox. Image: Michael Hardman/author provided.

In North America, green roofs have become mainstream, with a wide array of expansive, accessible and food-producing roofs installed in buildings. Again, city leaders and authorities have helped push the movement forward – only recently, San Francisco created a policy requiring new buildings to have green roofs. Toronto has policies dating from the 1990s, encouraging the development of urban farms on rooftops.

These countries also benefit from having newer buildings, which make it easier to install green roofs. Being able to store and distribute water right across the rooftop is crucial to maintaining the plants on any green roof – especially on “edible roofs” which farm fruit and vegetables. And it’s much easier to create this capacity in newer buildings, which can typically hold greater weight, than retro-fit old ones. Having a stronger roof also makes it easier to grow a greater variety of plants, since the soil can be deeper.


The new normal?

For green roofs to become the norm for new developments, there needs to be buy-in from public authorities and private actors. Those responsible for maintaining buildings may have to acquire new skills, such as landscaping, and in some cases volunteers may be needed to help out. Other considerations include installing drainage paths, meeting health and safety requirements and perhaps allowing access for the public, as well as planning restrictions and disruption from regular ativities in and around the buildings during installation.

To convince investors and developers that installing green roofs is worthwhile, economic arguments are still the most important. The term “natural capital” has been developed to explain the economic value of nature; for example, measuring the money saved by installing natural solutions to protect against flood damage, adapt to climate change or help people lead healthier and happier lives.

As the expertise about green roofs grows, official standards have been developed to ensure that they are designed, built and maintained properly, and function well. Improvements in the science and technology underpinning green roof development have also led to new variations on the concept.

For example, “blue roofs” increase the capacity of buildings to hold water over longer periods of time, rather than drain away quickly – crucial in times of heavier rainfall. There are also combinations of green roofs with solar panels, and “brown roofs” which are wilder in nature and maximise biodiversity.

If the trend continues, it could create new jobs and a more vibrant and sustainable local food economy – alongside many other benefits. There are still barriers to overcome, but the evidence so far indicates that green roofs have the potential to transform cities and help them function sustainably long into the future. The success stories need to be studied and replicated elsewhere, to make green, blue, brown and food-producing roofs the norm in cities around the world.

Michael Hardman, Senior Lecturer in Urban Geography, University of Salford and Nick Davies, Research Fellow, University of Salford.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.