The latest heat waves leave us with two certainties, the first is that we need to protect ourselves from these extreme phenomena that will be increasingly recurrent and aggressive, the second is that setting up individual shelters is economically, energetically and environmentally unfeasible. While the market will be in charge of profiting by refreshing the privileged, the public sector should act as a collective safeguard of the right to health.
One of the fathers of the bioeconomy, Georgescu Roegen, affirmed that the basis of an ecological action was based on minimizing future regrets. Do what we know we should do, say what we know we have to say. The adaptation of cities to these extreme weather events involves, in the short term, deploying a network of climate shelters, capable of taking care of the entire population during emergency situations. And in the long term, to renaturalize the urban space pTo mitigate the heat island effect caused by the concentration of asphalt and stone materials that retain temperature.
Climate shelters remind us that in the face of the eco-social crisis, collectivizing the satisfaction of our needs is going to become an imperative. In the short term, we have to act like amoebas, those unicellular beings that behave as such as long as the environment allows it; but if circumstances change and the environment becomes hostile, they have the ability to unite and form a multicellular being that allows them to survive, by consuming less energy and resources. In the case of our societies, this means assuming the new centrality that collective facilities should enjoy, understood as the only infrastructure that can allow us to reduce the consumption of resources and minimize environmental impacts, while maintaining quality of life. . In crisis situations, they behave like a multipurpose knife that can solve different problems in a versatile way, taking care of unforeseen events and emerging needs.
Barcelona It would be one of the large cities that is trying to anticipate, planning comprehensive interventions such as a public network of two hundred climate shelters that are scattered throughout the city. These are different municipal facilities and public spaces (libraries, neighborhood facilities in the city’s neighborhoods and districts, municipal sports centres, parks and gardens, schools and museums) that have other uses but can be activated as a refuge from high temperatures, especially for people vulnerable to heat (babies, the elderly, the chronically ill, people with fewer resources…). This initiative started a couple of years ago and has been evolving, incorporating a growing number of facilities. Currently 95% of the citizens of Barcelona have one of these shelters less than ten minutes’ walk from their home, and the goal is that in a few years they will have it less than five minutes away.
One of the main strategies deployed in urban plans for adaptation to climate change is renaturation. Beyond aesthetic issues or the multiple environmental and social benefits of renaturalizing urban environments (as pointed out in a recent Ecologists in Action report), increasing vegetation and permeable surfaces is the best way to reduce the heat island effect, having vegetation, trees and water in public spaces improves outdoor environmental comfort, but also contributes to improving comfort in homes, providing a natural shading. To this can be added solutions such as green roofs, which improve the thermal insulation of buildings.
Planting trees today and caring for them for years to come will offer us protection from heat waves for decades to come. Although in compact and urban-consolidated cities, gaining land for vegetation implies disputing it with cars, which monopolize 75% of public space. In addition to the plants invading streets and rooftops, renaturalizing the immense network of public facilities would be an opportunity to increase the mosaic of green pieces in city centers. Climate shelters and renaturalization strategies can go hand in hand, the short step and the long look converge in the same public endowments.
Paris is one of the densest cities with the smallest area of green areas per inhabitant, so within the framework of the Paris Agreement to fight climate change at a global level, it has launched the Oasis Project. An imaginative initiative aimed at renaturalizing the city’s 800 schoolyards by 2050, which would add up to an area of about eighty hectares, although they will not be completely covered with plants and sand, since spaces will be reserved for sports practice. These green islands would function as oases, especially during the heat waves that hit the city hard in summer. They are approached as participatory redesign projects that involve both the educational community and neighborhood entities, since it is intended that these spaces can be used by vulnerable groups during extreme weather events, and that they can be opened to the public during non-school hours.
An approach that has been joined Barcelona with a strategy to turn schoolyards into climate shelters. The renaturation process incorporates water components, such as fountains or ponds, as well as plant elements; so that they serve to cool the environment in the densest and most compact areas of the heart of the city. In addition, the use of patios as public spaces for families outside school hours, on weekends and during school vacations is encouraged. For this there is a service of monitors in charge of offering leisure alternatives in a safe and local context; as well as the opening and supervision of proper use of the facilities.
By contrast, those of us who live in the Madrid region are getting used to both being abandoned by the public, and being abandoned by the public. Here, every crisis (pandemic, Filomena, heat waves…) becomes a business opportunity and an occasion to invite people to seek life, instead of occasions to show attention and care for the population. Between grimaces and jokes, proposals to create climate shelters are ridiculed, denial is flirted with, parks are closed or dozens of public pools remain closed during heat waves and people are literally sent to cool off at mass or downtown commercial.
Climate shelters and urban renaturation are modest advances to achieve the most ambitious and structural transformations that we need, but they form a binomial from which no urban transformation agenda can ignore: care for people and the built environment, a new sensitivity towards the collective and towards nature, defense of public health and Trojan horse for eco-urbanism.
Oscar Wilde joked that climate talk was the last refuge of unimaginative people. Now that we are in the middle of an eco-social crisis, talking about the strategic importance of climate shelters is a symptom of people with the ability to imagine what is about to happen and take responsibility for what we must do to adapt.