Hot Topic: Urban Thermal Planning

Last Updated:
Mon, 2013-05-13 15:45

I just read a fascinating New York Times article about Chicago’s Urban Thermal planning efforts. What Chicago is doing is Brilliant and Amazing! This week it’s especially relevant as it’s pretty hot this week. 97 degrees here in Charlotte today, almost the record, and there’s no end in sight for this early heatwave. Unfortunately, we can probably expect years and decades of hotter, wilder weather like this.

Here at Everblue, we have a number of courses focused on Energy Efficiency and Sustainable Development. Every study that I have seen shows that where a home or builder is located is the single biggest determinant of its future energy usage. Additionally, in our LEED Training courses, we teach about the impacts of Heat Island effects. The Heat Island Effect is where human development (asphalt, concrete, air conditioning exhaust, tar bitumen rooftops, etc) all absorb the sun’s energy more than a native field of grass or forest would. In most cases the ground level temperatures increase between 20 and 100 degrees – just think of the poor air conditioning technician on the rooftop of your local big box store in July! Or have you ever walked from a hot concrete street into a park on a summer day – what a difference.

Well, from an urban planning perspective it makes perfect sense to reduce these thermal “hot spots.” Using urban planning to reduce the heat island effect should save lives (fewer heat wave related deaths, reduce energy usage from lower AC bills, reduce air pollution from less energy used, and improve quality of life as who really likes it outside when the temperature is over 90 degrees).

Here’s an excerpt from the NY Times (find the article here):

City planners examined a century’s worth of weather records and found the long-term trends grim. Using thermal radar, they are pinpointing the hottest areas and finding ways to cool them: removing impermeable blacktop that traps water and heat, building rooftop gardens, planting southern varieties of trees and adding air-conditioning to classrooms. The city hopes that these investments will save money. They will surely save lives.

Immediate strategies that we teach would include cool roofs (think white, not black), garden roofs (think grass on the roof), more trees, permeable pavement (see Grassy Pavers), better building orientations, reduce dense areas of asphalt with grass and landscaping, encourage lighter building colors to reflect more of the suns energy, and more. My favorite place in uptown Charlotte is a shaded outdoor restaurant that faces a lawn of grass in the center of a dense building complex right off main street (which itself is lined with large old shade trees) – it’s great to sit outside. Where is your favorite place and what is special about it? Is it connected to nature? Is it cooler in the summer?

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