Climate change is going to mean different things to different people. However, one inescapable reality that we all have to deal with is the issue of heat. Heat is getting out of control! For the first time, many people are taking a long hard look at how we build our offices, homes and suburbs. That could be the determining factor between who dies and who survives in the very near future. 

The long hot summer of 2023 has become a major talking point around the world, even focusing an aggregate majority of the planet’s population on the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. 

The long hot summer of 2023 has prompted many researchers to announce that the age of Anthropocene is finally here. Photo: Kenya Mzee

Are we prepared for longer and more frequent episodes of heat and drought? Does it show in our houses? Rich suburbs tend to be better prepared for episodes of heat and rainstorms compared to poor ones for several interconnected reasons. 

Where the rich live and work 

Wealthier suburbs typically have more financial resources available for infrastructure development and maintenance. This enables them to invest in resilient infrastructure, such as storm water drainage systems, green infrastructure, and climate-adaptive building designs that can better withstand the impacts of heavy rain and extreme heat. 

Such neighbourhoods have tree-lined roads. There are also many parks around the homes where people can go for a walk or to walk their dog. The air is fresh throughout the day and this creates a cool, beautiful and sometimes breezy atmosphere for people to relax in.

Affluent suburbs are typically greener, cooler and more pleasant to be in. Photo: Roland Ngam

Sometimes, the homes are weatherised and in the event of some major catastrophe, there is insurance to take care of everything. Neighbourhood cafés and restaurants also provide beautiful spaces where people can hang out, eat, socialise and just generally enjoy watching people come and go.  

Research shows that in such areas, tree canopy can reduce the temperature of some suburbs by up to 8 degrees in the summer months. 

The greenery of affluent suburbs changes their temperature and general weather conditions. Photo: Kenya Mzee

That said, too many downtown areas are covered in concrete. There is mile after mile of asphalt and concrete that absorb the sun’s heat for hours on end, and then in the cooler hours, this heat is released and, as it radiates, there is no let-up from the discomfort. 

Too many office parks are still not doing enough to adapt to hotter weather conditions. Photo: Philly Mak

Where the poor live

Informal settlements and less affluent communities have to deal with intense heat for most of the year. There is almost no tree canopy in such areas because municipal managers typically do not give them enough attention. 

Informal settlement dwellers use a lot of corrugated iron and plywood to build houses. Such materials absorb a lot of heat in the summer and do not do much to keep out the cold in the winter months. The lack of proper separation between the sun’s heat and the metal sheets creates a boiling atmosphere inside houses.  

Informal settlements use a lot of corrugated sheets for building. Such materials are convenient, but then they absorb a lot of heat. Photo: Kenya Mzee

Even formal but less affluent communities deal with similar challenges. Compact, overpopulated houses are typically much hotter than in affluent suburbs. There is often very little vegetation around and that means conditions that are more difficult. A home in a less affluent community is often five-to-10-times hotter than in a leafy suburb.

During the summer months, it is it is always very hot in informal settlements. Photo: Philly Mak

It is interesting that the term ‘leafy suburb’ signifies where rich and or upper middle class people live). People use fans to cool down and at night, they sleep outside or on rooftops.

Looking forward 

The reality that we now have to deal with means that municipal managers need to start paying more attention to how we build. Preparing urban spaces for global warming is crucial to mitigate the adverse effects of climate change, such as rising temperatures, extreme weather events, sea-level rise, and changing precipitation patterns. 

Here's how we should prepare urban spaces:

Green spaces are very important for urban settlements. Photo: Roland Ngam

All suburbs need to zone green spaces and plant trees to reduce the urban heat island effect. They also need to design buildings to withstand extreme weather. The presence of green infrastructure, including parks, urban forests, and green roofs, is necessary to enhance resilience, reduce urban heat, and promote biodiversity.

It is important to make these changes with a long-term vision. The world has changed and we have to realise that mitigation and adaptation to the adverse effects of climate change is going to become part of our daily lives. It will require the involvement of government agencies, businesses, communities, and households. 

Calming and cooling greenery can no longer be the preserve of the rich. This aberration has to be corrected quickly. Photo: Roland Ngam