How the climate crisis is forcing us to change our cities for the better

Martin Wright reports that cities across the globe are turning the climate crisis into a chance for happier and healthier living.

“Hot town! Summer in the city…!”

It’s a cracking song – a 1960s anthem to hedonism – and no surprise that it’s been an ‘earworm’ going through my head this morning, as I wrestle with a jammed blind, trying to create some paltry shade for my desk as the mercury soars towards the 40s.

It could be relatively cool in the near future, if this sounds familiar. Rather masochistically, you may think, I’ve been reading predictions of how summers in the city could get a lot hotter, and not in a good way, as the climate spins out of control.

My attention was drawn to something more than the usual warnings about what life in a city of 50 degrees might be like (borderline impossible). I was more struck by the wide range of responses cities around the world have begun to provide to cool their streets. Responses that don’t just turn down the urban thermostat, but that make life sweeter for their people in the here and now.

Sometimes, a few cans worth of white paint can make all of the difference. That’s the lesson from Ahmedabad, in the Indian state of Gujarat. A clean white roof reflects 80 per cent of the sun’s heat, compared to just 20 per cent for a (typical) grey one. 

The city also helped low-income residents to coat their roofs in reflective paint as part of its heat-action plan, which was developed in collaboration with the US-based Natural Resources Defense Council. 

“Since we painted the house,” said one, “we don’t feel that hot any more. The house feels cooler and more relaxed. Our electricity bills are also reduced.” 

This simple solution is matched by more sophisticated ones, like personalised WhatsApp warnings when there’s a heatwave.

Sustainable development

Whitening buildings is one way to lower the heat. Image: Clark Van Der Beken

Where Ahmedabad’s opted for a white-out, Medellín is bringing in the green. Once notorious as Colombia’s cocaine capital, its future reputation could rest on a series of imaginative responses to the climate crisis. These include planting ‘green corridors’ along roads and waterways, providing shady paths for pedestrians and cyclists. This has already reduced temperatures by 3 degrees Celsius along busy thoroughfares. And it’s had a healing impact on communities, too, with people who had suffered years of violence coming together to be trained as city gardeners.

The encouragement of UN Environment Programme’s Cool CoalitionOther cities are also experiencing the chill. Sierra Leone’s ambitious effort to increase vegetation by 50 per cent. Milan is targeting 3m new trees as part of its 2030 goal of cutting temperatures by 2 degrees C. And Melbourne’s putting urban reforestation at the heart of its plans to reduce the soaring demand for energy-guzzling air conditioners in Australia.

Meanwhile Athens, the European city most threatened by the climate crisis, is regreening its hills, which were famed for their forests in classical times; restoring wastelands as nature parks; and installing fountains to cool the air in the city’s famous squares. As a result, temperatures in Omonia Square below the Acropolis have already dropped by 4 degrees Celsius.

Climate change

Athens is trying to regreen its hills in response the climate change. Image: Constantinos Kollias

Climate crisis can lead to floods in cooler and cloudier Britain. This is where the key is to absorb water as it falls. By making our city landscapes more sponge-like than a smooth slab of concrete, we can slow down floods and slow down their pace. 

In London’s Hammersmith, regeneration specialist Groundwork has worked with the borough council to ‘spongify’ the environment of three housing estates. Cue green roofs for apartment blocks, ‘renaturalised’ surfaces in place of concrete, and new growing beds. Green team trainees have been employed by 20 residents. Retrofitting energy-saving (and cost-saving) homes has won their support.

A scheme in Gothenburg, Sweden, is also dependent on winning the hearts and minds of local residents. Dubbed the country’s rainiest city, it has wrestled for years with too much water in the wrong places. Now it’s turning a problem into something playful, with a couple of ‘rain playgrounds’, including one at a local school. This creates a downpour that channels it through the school yard, sending water into pools and then slowly seeping into a marshland with puddles. It slows down the flow and, equally important, it is loved by the children.

Initiatives like these won’t cure cities of climate change on their own, of course. But they do help. In the meantime, they make summer in the City a sweeter season. It’s just not that hot. But not in a negative way.

Martin Wright is the chairperson of Positive News.

Main image: Bosco Verticale is a leafy residential development located in Milan. Credit: Zac Wolff