The world is getting hotter. Last year, a record-breaking heat wave caused 61,000 deaths in Europe. By the 2030s, global temperatures are expected to rise 2.7° F above pre-industrial averages.
Urban areas are at a particular disadvantage. Thanks to the “heat island effect,” daytime temperatures in urban areas are around 1–7° F hotter. This reality is forcing urban planners and developers to rethink architecture and street design.
One place experiencing urban climate innovation is Singapore. The New York Times recently looked at the steps the city-state has taken to mitigate the impacts of climate change in a piece entitled, "How to Cool Down a City."
Treating Trees as Infrastructure
Traditional urbanization entails tearing out natural landscapes and replacing them with more concrete and asphalt. But that’s the surest way to create a heat island effect. Asphalt absorbs the heat from sunlight during the day and releases it at night, warming a city even more. Trees, on the other hand, provide shade and act as a natural coolant.
Trees are more than an aesthetic feature. They’re the best way to reduce a city’s average temperature, experts say. To do that at scale, cities need to start treating trees like infrastructure, Dr. Brian Stone Jr. of the Urban Climate Lab told The Times.
Singapore is now offering financial incentives for developers who add trees and foliage, including rooftop gardens, to buildings. The greenery cools down the occupants as well as passersby navigating the much cooler sidewalks outside.
Paint the Town White
Interest in reflective white paint as a heat mitigator has surged in recent years, including in cities like Los Angeles. Studies indicate reflective paint could reduce ambient heat by 3.5° F.
Singapore has been using reflective paint on rooftops. Some 130 Housing Board blocks in Tampines are being coated with the paint as part of a pilot program.
Rapid new development has given Singapore a chance to entirely rethink urban design. Here are just a few ways buildings and neighborhoods can be developed to minimize the impact of climate change:
Avoid having buildings directly face the sun
Design units and corridors in a way that encourages cross-ventilation
Have plenty of green space with lots of foliage to cool down surrounding areas
Encourage a mixture of tall, medium and short buildings rather than grouping skyscrapers side-by-side
Singapore has an advantage because of its centralized political system and wealth. Centrally-planned communities like Marina Bay have chilled water running through a network of pipes to cool buildings simultaneously instead of one space at a time.
A Hail Mary?
Even with all of Singapore’s work, the impacts are modest.
“I think we’re just trying to not see the increases we anticipate if we don’t do anything,” Deputy Chief Executive of Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority told The Times.
With the severity of our climate crisis, that may be the best some cities can hope for. The price of doing nothing is too great.