Sometimes the heat in the city can make it feel like we’ve sunk into the very centre of the Earth. In 2012 Manhattan saw the warmest year on record and it looks like temperatures are going to get even hotter.
As soon as winter temperatures are biting at our heels we’re all dreaming of some summer relief, but are hot summers about to become a serious hazard?
In 2010 a Russian heat wave resulted in approximately 55,000 heat-related deaths while in 2003 the heat wave across Western Europe caused over 2000 excess deaths in the UK alone. Worryingly it looks like these heat waves are going to stop being freak occurrences and become a frightening norm across the world.
Recent research, both in Manhattan and the UK, has reported that the balance of temperature-related deaths in our cities is set to change dramatically, with global warming and city-wide pollution resulting in hotter urban climates and an increase of preventable deaths.
The Future’s Bright… Hot & Treacherous
Forecasts published recently by the Earth Institute and Mailman School of Public Health claim that by 2020 the number of heat-related deaths in New York will be higher than those associated with the cold. It showed a mean increase of 20% for deaths due to heat, in comparison to a 12% decrease for those related to the cold. This projected gap continues to widen through the 2050s and into the 2080s as global warming causes hotter summers and milder winters.
Similar results were reported last year by the Health Protection Agency (HPA) in the UK, with an incredible 540% rise in heat-related mortality by the 2080s.
Together this research reveals a worrying global trend, and if you’re an aging city-dweller the news is even worse.
Hot Damn. Summer In The City
Cities are naturally very dangerous places and our obsession with cars and concrete is making them even worse.
You might not have heard of the Urban Heat Island effect, but you’ve probably felt it. Thought to be a product of pollution and the replacement of natural surfaces with building materials that absorb heat, built-up environments can be up around 5-10 degrees warmer than the surrounding area.
Our buildings are absorbing the radiation from their surroundings and releasing it as heat at night. Combining this with global temperature increases, the urban environment of the future is primed to be a dangerously hot place in the summer.
With the elderly at the greatest risk, and an ageing global population on our hands, it looks like our obsession with urbanisation is leading us straight into trouble.
So, What Can Be Done?
If you’ve ever eaten a sandwich in a glorified car-park masquerading as al fresco dining, and didn’t think something was terribly wrong, then you’ve got a problem. More than 80% of us now live in built-up environments. Slowly but steadily we’ve removed ourselves from nature; so much so a frightened mob would probably attack a lost weeping willow, mistaking it for an alien species.
With our faces pressed to little screens, soon we might even start to convince ourselves this is our natural environment. In our race to see what we could do, we forgot to ask whether we should. What’s done it done but as rapid urbanisation is causing us all kinds of problems shouldn’t we do something about it?
Senior author of the Manhattan study, Patrick Kinney, said, “We should all be working to reduce human impacts on natural systems and at the same time improving the quality and health of our human environments” .
I can’t see everyone leaving the cities and heading for the trees anytime soon, so what can we do to make our cities a better place? It seems to me that there are two main lines of attack.
Firstly, we need to reduce the traffic in our cities by getting people out of their cars; demanding from local and national government that public transport is improved and cycle-routes are increased.
Then, we need to turn the concrete tide and invite nature back into our lives. Plants do all kinds of things that are needed in our cities, from absorbing pollution to reducing the urban heat island effect. Without the space to get as many as we’d need on ground level to make a difference, people have started to look up.
Although the idea for vertical gardens has been around for some time, the concept of putting living green walls on our buildings is relatively new. By incorporating the benefits of plants into an architectural option, they could be ready to transform our cities into a liveable compromise; meaning we’ll be able to breathe in the future without lugging around an oxygen tank.
The Time Is Now
It’s not enough to sit back and wait for the weather to kill us, hoping someone will do something about it. It’s easy to vehemently nod, whole-heartedly agreeing that we should do something about climate change and then just go about your business as before. It can be difficult to grasp the urgency of predictions that are so far in the future and get in the way of our convenient modern lives.
However we can’t wait till we’ve broken something to start crying about it. The fact that we can accurately estimate these predictions isn’t enough in itself, but what we do with the information is how we set ourselves apart from the dinosaurs and the Dodo.
It’s time to take an active interest in your environment and community. Petition for better public transport, start fund-raising for living walls. Get involved and make sure you’re not gasping for breath on a pavement at the age of 70, regretting not doing anything.
What do you think? Are you worried about global warming and effect of rising temperatures? Please share your thoughts about the realities of what can be done.