Climate Action

This is how European cities are fighting back against heatwaves

Two young men play football on the dried up ground on West Common in Gerrard's Cross, southern England, July 26, 2006. Britain is currently experiencing a summer heatwave with record temperatures for July recently set and many water-use restrictions in place. REUTERS/Toby Melville (BRITAIN) - GM1DTDDPSQAA

Last year was Europe's warmest year on record, while 11 of the continent's 12 warmest years have occurred since 2000. Image: REUTERS/Toby Melville

Sean Fleming
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  • 140,000 people in Europe have been killed by hot weather since 2000.
  • 11 of Europe’s 12 hottest years have occurred in that time.
  • From planting trees to high-tech sprinklers, cities are now trying to stay cool.

In a continent not generally associated with extreme weather, heatwaves are Europe’s deadliest climate-related disasters. Since 2000, around 140,000 people have died in Europe due to excessively high temperatures, according to the UN Environment Programme, and its cities are often hardest hit.

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The hustle and bustle of urban life generates its own heat, of course – vehicle engines and their exhaust fumes, industrial equipment, and the outputs of air-cooling machinery all play their part. Plus, hard surfaces like concrete and tarmac soak up heat from the sun, warming the spaces around them and keeping temperatures high after the sun has set.

Last year was Europe's warmest year on record, while 11 of the continent's 12 warmest years have occurred since 2000, according to the Copernicus European State of the Climate Report.

Against this backdrop, and the likelihood of stronger and more frequent heatwaves, many of Europe’s cities are fighting back – finding ways to lower temperatures and make life more bearable for their inhabitants.

Trends in annual temperature across Europe between 1960 and 2018
Going up – heatwaves drive up European temperatures Image: European Environment Agency

Green spaces

The shadecast by trees helps to alleviate some of the absorption of heat by roads and paved areas. In addition, the trees release tiny amounts of water vapour from their leaves, which helps cool the air around them.

Barcelona has around 1.4 million trees, more than any other European city. As part of a 20-year plan, it is planting more, too. The Italian city of Milan has a goal to plant three million new trees by 2030, as part of its ForestaMi initiative. It hopes doing so will reduce the ‘heat island effect’ of urban areas. And in Germany, Frankfurt is creating a series of green living rooms, to provide more urban shade.

In 2017, there were 1.5 million square metres of green roofs in the Greater London area. These are gardens that have been created on the tops of many of the city’s buildings, a vital source of potential new green space in otherwise highly congested areas.

Meanwhile, in Paris, anyone can apply for a permit to start planting gardens on paved areas and public land, according to the BBC, to increase the city’s green footprint.

Cool places

The Austrian capital, Vienna, is creating a network of car-free ‘cool straßen’ (cool streets) for the second consecutive summer, reports the BBC. As well as banning cars, the cool straßen neighbourhoods will offer outdoor seating areas, and cooling mist sprays that dispense fine clouds of vapour which can lower ambient temperatures by several degrees.

In Nice, on the French Côte d'Azur, water plays a key part in keeping people cool. There are many fountains, lakes and rivers – not to mention the sea. But now there are also pavement wetting systems in use. Operating as a spray system, but also as a series of porous paving slabs that soak up water from their underside, they are designed to literally take the heat out of the city.

In Paris, meanwhile, an app is available to help people find a spot in the shade.

Extrema collates weather data to identify possible extreme heat episodes in some of Europe’s key cities, including the French capital. It also offers a helpful list of places you can go to cool off – including river banks, parks and cultural sites such as museums. It’s also available in Athens, Rotterdam, Milan, and Mallorca.

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