Heat Island Effect Gets New Respect Thanks to Rising Temperatures

There are still skeptics who doubt climate change is an event influenced by humans. These same people who are living in cities aren’t so skeptical about the heat island effect for one simple reason – their local environment is hot and getting hotter. The latest weather statistics indicate that 20,000 high temperature records have been broken so far this year, and the concrete-filled cities are suffering every bit as much as the cattle ranchers and farmers in the dust-filled rural areas we see in the news on a daily basis.

It wasn’t that long ago that cities cut trees down with abandon and then tried to break up the sterile look of concrete and pavement by planting a few trees in giant concrete pots. That seemed to be acceptable during a bustling economy in the name of progress. Yet there are always unintended consequences when interrupting the ecosystem and one of those consequences is now becoming apparent. Though it has always been known that pavement absorbs heat, the warming climate and hotter-than-normal temperatures are causing cities to heat up at twice the rate of the planet. This is according to a study by Brian Stone, who is Georgia Tech’s Urban Climate Lab Director.

We know that cities comprise their own ecosystem. Pavement heats up during the day, and continues to radiate heat throughout the night. However, it is the way people react that makes the situation even worse. Hot people turn on air conditioners and run them for longer periods of time, creating exhaust heat and using more energy. National Public Radio recently ran a story about what cities can and should do about heat islands. They point to a beautiful park near Ponce de Leon Avenue in Atlanta as a good example. The park has a pond (with a fountain to promote cooling evaporation), trees, and lots of grass. The park breaks up the endless sea of concrete with a calm setting that contributes to, rather than detracts from, the natural environment. It is interesting to note that the park serves multiple purposes. Trees are essential to controlling greenhouse gases, but the park also has features that enable it to contribute to flood control and to serve as a recreational area.

This notation leads to several points of analysis. Although this is a wonderful example of what can be done, there are a couple of things we can learn from this park besides how to lower a heat island effect. Anyone who will be working in the green industry will continue to have to “sell” green concepts because their implementation often costs more up front than less sustainable systems. Though the Ponce de Leon park is beautiful and much needed, it is an example of a proposition that taxpayers must be willing to pay for as a public work. Many more of these types of parks are needed, and it is ironic that part of the solution to rising temperatures is to re-plant the trees cut down with abandon during development.

Though people enjoy parks, the state of the economy is so difficult that many desirable projects and activities get pushed to the bottom of the list as ‘too expensive’. Creating parks is one of them, despite the urgent need for green spaces in cities. As the green designers, builders, and contractors of the future, you need to be aware of the politics involved in the green industry. One of the solutions is to do exactly what the Ponce de Leon park designers did – make the green space multi-use. That creates an important “need” in the mind of community members that can push parks up the list of potential projects, even in a struggling economy. My prediction is that, as additional green projects are built, they will become more and more integrated into the economy and multipurpose projects will become standard practice. That will be good news for the city dwellers suffering from urban heat islands.

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