What should we call the collection of islands on which the UK and Ireland happen to sit?

These islands. Image: Google.

There’s a headline that got me in trouble a while back. I thought it was pretty innocuous, so was surprised when people kicked off, but nonetheless they did. See if you can guess what they were angry about:

“Dublin offers the best quality of life in the British Isles. But can its economy withstand Brexit?

See the problem? I bet you can if you’re Irish.

The problematic phrase is “British Isles”, and as I said, I’d always assumed it to be pretty innocuous.  You might argue that that’s because I grew up in Britain, but I don’t think that’s the whole story. The two big and several thousand small islands that belong to the archipelago off the coast of North West Europe are actually known as the British Isles across the English-speaking world, and they’re Les îles Britanniques in France, too. Consequently, that’s how they’re generally referred to in news reports pretty much all over the world; it’s what their Wikipedia page is called, too.

The problem, as I hinted, is how the phrase reads in Ireland. The word “British”, after all, can also be followed by “Empire”, and Ireland had a pretty appalling experience of empire. To find that nearly a century after independence the country is still sometimes described using the name of the colonial oppressor must, on the whole, be pretty galling.

And so, the Irish government doesn’t recognise the term, and tries to discourage its use. So, I learned when I used it in a headline, do a lot of Irish people. Which, to be fair, seems pretty reasonable: if someone had starved my great-great-grandparents to death, I’d probably prefer not to be described using their name, either.

Here’s the problem, though: there is not currently a widely recognisable alternative term. A number have been suggested – but, well, look:

“Dublin offers the best quality of life in the Atlantic Archipelago”


“Dublin offers the best quality of life in the  Anglo-Celtic Isles”

Sorry, what?

“Dublin offers the best quality of life in the Islands of the North Atlantic”

What, like, Greenland?

Official government documents – back before Brexit, when it didn’t seem to be official British government policy to alienate Ireland at every available opportunity – tended to avoid the controversy by referring simply to “these islands”. That’s actually a rather lovely phrase, but while that may work in a context where the identity of “these” islands is clear, it’s not much use to an online media organisation whose output might pop up on Google searches made in Albuquerque or Afghanistan. 

By the same token we have a lot more readers in the United Kingdom than we do in the Republic of Ireland – not least because there are a lot more people in the United Kingdom than in the Republic of Ireland. There are something like 4.8m people in the Republic. Even if you were to assume that half the population of Northern Ireland finds the term “British Isles” offensive too, as seems probable, that’s still only about 5.7m people.

There are more than ten times that, around 61m, on the island of Great Britain. Is it really worth avoiding a term familiar around the world, purely because it’s offensive to such a small number?

Well... yes, actually, I think it is. Because while Britain may have largely forgotten its terrible record in Ireland, that doesn’t get us off the hook. Because the Brexit negotiations have been a reminder that random bouts of rudeness towards Ireland is the mark of an arsehole. And because it’s generally a good thing not to go about pointlessly pissing people off if you can avoid it.

Since none of the alternatives have so far gained any real currency, I suppose we shall have to describe the archipelago, when it comes up, as “the UK and Ireland”. That’s not ideal, if I’m honest –it’s a political label rather than a geographical one, it doesn’t quite fit (the Isle of Man is not technically part of either), and what’s more it’s just plain ugly. 

But as our occasional Dublin correspondent Aoife Moriarty put it when I quizzed her on her thoughts about all this, “I know it’s ugly – but so is history.” It’s a fair point. So until one of the other phrases becomes generally recognisable I supposed we’re stuck with it.

If you have a better idea, mind, do let me know. 

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.

Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.

But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.

A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.