Water Water/Cooler Moments in the Age of Extreme Heat

Water/Cooler Moments in the Age of Extreme Heat

Karl Dickinson
Enthusiastic about real change that impacts real lives. Believer in the power of the individual; it can make all the difference. I enjoy connecting with people who have the wildest ideas and the enthusiasm to bring them to life.

As heatwaves become more frequent, we grow reliant on cities taking measures to provide relief. From fountains to pools to games, there are plenty of ways water offers comfort from rising temperatures. There is even an app to help us find the options in our city: EXTREMA Global. We spoke to the project’s coordinator to find out how it works and to learn more about why H2O is the perfect tool for cool.

Like many others, Athens is a city experiencing unusually high temperatures more frequently than ever before. Climate change is tangible and the urban heat island effect makes it worse. For one in four in the Greek capital, extreme heat is a killer, with “2,300 excess deaths” reported within just a few weeks of summer 2021, discloses Politico.

Even before this, Dr Iphigenia Keramitsoglou, Research Director at the National Observatory of Athens, knew something had to be done. With a PhD in atmospheric physics and expertise in earth observation from satellites, she was well placed to lead a project that hinged on mapping geospatial data – in this case, heat patterns – and city-specific options for cooling. This culminated in an interface that could “provide the city authorities a portfolio of tools to manage heat”. They called it EXTREMA.

Making People Appy

EXTREMA is a free-to-download mobile application, our CityChanger begins, and it’s intuitive to use.

Citizens looking for sweet heat relief can glimpse at the interface for cooling ideas: a fountain here, a shady spot in a tree-filled park there. Maybe there’s a swimming pool, a street mister, or an air-conditioned municipal building worth visiting. Why not refill your bottle at the free drinking water spots along the way?

Water, in its various forms, shapes our response to the discomfort brought about by a warming climate.

That is why EXTREMA is important not only to citizens but also to municipalities. It offers a chance to plan for hotter summers and implement strategies for heatwaves. Subscribing as an EXTREMA City opens access to a wider bunch of add-ons: tools for monitoring how the urban space works during sweltering seasons, “so that the city can learn from their lessons and then plan for next year,” Iphigenia suggests.

During a heatwave, the administration may choose to keep public green spaces open later.

Aside from shade, trees provide a cooling effect through evapotranspiration: the release of water while ‘breathing’ through their leaves. Water is the reason leafy parks are an oasis of cool in summer.

Without deviating much from the shortest path, an add-on for the app suggests the coolest route to any destination in your city.

Extreme heat affects our breathing. There’s also a patch alerting users to poor air quality “and some suggestions on what to avoid if the air quality is not good”.

“It started with heat. But in the face of scaling up, it’s not only about heat.”

Even despite the COVID pandemic, the app has outgrown its academic roots. Scaled up by a consortium, it has a new name – EXTREMA Global – and is now available in any city around the world.

Cities Define Their Water Spots

Heat maps using satellite data are one thing, but cool spots require localised input.

A dedicated ‘heat officer’ can upload significant data via a simple dashboard. Users can then instantly see the cool spaces as defined by the city, our expert explains.

As a result, the programme opens up new opportunities for how cities relate to water in a more sustainable manner.

Iphigenia gives Milan as an example. They wanted to reduce the volume of plastic bottles, so “they have a parallel programme to install water fountains”. Now citizens can identify their nearest communal potable water spot and refill their reusable bottles.

Silent But Deadly

“Heat is considered by the World Health Organisation as the silent killer,” Iphigenia tells us. The severity was relatively unknown, she continues, until extreme weather hit the news, which it now does regularly: Canada in 2021, Australia the year before that, across Europe in 2003.

“Because of climate change, all the models agree that the next period is going to have more heat waves that are more intense, longer, that start earlier, and finish later. So, the extreme of today is starting to become the norm.”

Our CityChanger is part of a movement to communicate the issues of and relating to heat. EXTREMA Global is a useful tool for this narrative, especially in Northern European cities where, Iphigenia says, people are less accustomed to heat and the adverse impacts it has on health and comfort.

Consider energy poverty, too, and the threat deepens. The better-off may be able to afford air con, but not all. Then what? Water – where publicly available – provides a natural coolant.

“You can find ways to live safely or to move around the city safely because you know where you can find water.”

Stay Home, Stay Safe

We cannot stop children from playing but there’s a danger they may overheat. EXTREMA Global accounts for this by pointing out the locations of water games. Iphigenia acknowledges that fun is an effective motive for engagement, that our lifestyles shouldn’t be forced to change, but that we should adapt “so that everything you do is safe”.

The temptation of cooling water spots may even be a danger, prompting, for example, elderly relatives to venture out into a heat they cannot cope with. Creating profiles for different family members allows users to monitor dangers and correlate these with vulnerabilities.

App or not, we should be mindful of the risks. “Tell your grandmother not to go to the street market during these hours. Volunteer to do the shopping for them.”

What’s useful in these cases is, as our CityChanger explains, that the app tells users how to seek relief indoors at home: “That is, close the shutters, to have a cooling shower, to drink a lot of water.” This could save lives.

Street misters - CityChangers.org
Street misters. Image credit: Unsplash / Alessandro Fazari

Citizen Science – Informed Planning

The data fed into EXTREMA makes it an effective tool for planning. “It helps the local authorities understand where the vulnerable population is,” our expert notes. Reviews, ratings, and user patterns allow cities to view how their local population use the facility. Where the cooling spots are. How they’re interacting with water. It offers insights into what is needed, and what works. “So, where the planners should put the focus.”

By providing people with immediate solutions – and analysing what they interact with – we get informed for long-term planning. This is especially important in areas facing water scarcity; we can learn where to plant trees, adding heat relief where people already want to congregate. Using this knowledge, cities can design “based on the climate, based on the availability of resources, based on the budget, based on the priorities.”

Beat the Heat Cheat Sheet

During development, the prototype of the app received valuable feedback from Europe’s first Chief Heat Officer, for the city of Athens, Eleni Myrivili. This provided some valuable lessons we can all learn from when implementing projects for heat relief.

If we want citizens to engage, Iphigenia reflects, we need to meet a need but also offer them what they want from it. “You want to create awareness, and you want to give suggestions, to give alternatives to the citizens to live safely during the heat.” And don’t be blinkered – don’t impose limits that solely address the summer season. For its part in reducing plastic consumption, the locations of Milan’s drinking fountains, for example, has value all year round.

With climate change upon us, Iphigenia suggests cities think beyond their civic services and tell a human story. “The more content the cities put into the app, and the more they use EXTREMA Global as a digital platform, the more it will be used by citizens.”

Cooling Cities in a Nutshell

While we fight to reverse climate change, EXTREMA is helping us cope with it. Water is versatile. From drinks to atmospheric coolant, and to plunge pools, a bit of H2O can be the difference between “argh!” and “aaaah”. Cities that monitor how people engage with water features and cooler areas have a chance to plan resilience strategies for dealing with the climbing mercury. If we look at the data and listen to the needs of the people and observe their behaviours in heat, we can use water to everyone’s advantage.

Prepare for summer by downloading the app or find out more on the EXTREMA Global website.

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