Brandon Bear profiles Sweltering Cities, an organisation working with communities in our hottest suburbs to campaign for more liveable, equitable and sustainable cities.
The idyllic images of summer in Sydney involve ice creams on beaches and long afternoons spent together outdoors – but for many, our warmer months bring incredible stress as people, homes and communities struggle to stay cool enough to keep safe.
Parts of Greater Sydney that lack access to beaches, shaded public spaces and amenities are experiencing the effects of heat inequity. A recent survey conducted by Sweltering Cities and Healthy Homes for Renters explored the harsh reality that our suburbs are becoming increasingly unsafe during the summer.
Sweltering Cities is a not-for-profit organisation with a vision for cooler, more equitable and sustainable cities, with planning and policy that puts people at the centre. Their recent survey was part of an initial exploration to collect data on what many in Sydney already know: it’s becoming too hot and not enough is being done to change that.
Emma Bacon, founder and executive director of Sweltering Cities highlighted the importance of the research.
“Rising temperatures are a public health emergency. Communities across the country know that the heat is getting worse and staying cool is getting more expensive. There are simple solutions that can cool our homes and suburbs; now we need governments to take this issue seriously,” Bacon told The Sentinel.
The survey collected responses from over 2,100 people across 695 postcodes during the summer of 2021/22 and alarmingly found that over 65 per cent of people reported feeling unwell on hot days, with one in eight needing to seek medical care.
Many of the issues related to heat stress and access to relief are linked to geographic and socio-economic markers across cities. The prevalence of urban heat islands, lack of access to cool spaces and increased risk of heat-related illness is known as heat inequity.
“Extreme heat has severe health impacts on our most vulnerable – older people, people with disabilities and chronic illness, young people and pregnant people. How we cope with heat is also defined by our housing and our economic resources. There is a big difference between not having to think about your electricity bills and worrying about whether you can turn on your fan,” Bacon said.
The portrayal of heat-related health issues also concerns in the media is also a concern for Bacon.
“Heatwaves are Australia’s most deadly environmental disaster but you wouldn’t know that from some of the media coverage of extreme heat events. Frequently, we see catastrophic heat records being reported alongside photos of people at the beach,” she said.
“It might be 50 degrees in Penrith while the news shows people at Bondi. These images don’t accurately reflect the severe health impact of those temperatures.”
The Australia Institute confirms the stark reality of heat in Western Sydney. The HeatWatch: Extreme Heat in Western Sydney report, released earlier in 2022, stated: “Extreme heat is already disproportionately impacting Western Sydney. Days over 35°C could increase fivefold by 2090 without strong climate action. By then, places like Penrith could experience up to 58 days of extreme heat per year.”
According to both the Heatwatch report and Bacon, this is not an inevitable outcome.
“There are lots of things we can do to cool our suburbs and homes – but fundamentally, unless we turn off the oven by taking climate action and reducing emissions, temperatures will get unbearably hot in our cities. The choices we make about the sustainability of our cities, homes and energy system will define how safe we are in the future,” Bacon said.
Renters and those living in public housing are particularly affected by hotter weather. The Sweltering Cities survey indicated that less than 15 per cent of requests made by renters to landlords that would improve heat resilience were enacted.
Some renters stated they had to leave their homes to escape unbearable heat, many did not have access to air conditioning and those renters who did have air conditioning were increasingly likely to avoid using it due to running costs.
Respondents to the survey demonstrated they understood the impact of planning on heat, with more than 80 per cent desiring more trees in their neighbourhoods and over 60 per cent seeking lighter roofing on buildings.
Bacon noted that governments are aware of the impact these changes can make, reflecting on the recent decision to veto a planning regulation that would see the end of dark roofing in new housing developments.
“We were disappointed with this backflip – especially considering two-thirds of the Sydney respondents in our survey supported cooling measures like this,” she said.
Bacon insisted that the issue of heat inequity sits firmly in the realms of policy and planning.
”Half of the respondents in the survey said the way their suburb is built increases heat and the majority support changes to cool our suburbs. Trees are especially important – anyone who has walked down a treeless street on a hot day will know what that feels like.”
The survey report delivered eleven national recommendations, which included changes to the way new homes are built, reviewing workplace health and safety regulations related to heat stress, and ambitious targets for green cover.
“Adapting to extreme heat will involve a whole of government response. Sustainable cities of our future require transformative change that reduces inequality. These recommendations show we can have safer homes, workplaces, suburbs and schools,” Bacon said.
Bacon stressed that not everything in this space has to be hard – there are creative and quick fixes to addressing some of these issues.
“We have spoken to hundreds of people across the city about how extreme heat impacts their lives and heard time and time again that bus stops without shelters are inaccessible for many in the heat. On a 35 degree day, standing for even a short time in the sun with no shade, shelter or seat is a serious barrier to people accessing their communities,” she said.
“We can have innovative, sustainable accessible bus shelters that will help us reduce carbon emissions and build a sustainable transport network for everyone. This is what the community wants.
“Climate change is a global problem with local impacts. We want to work with people to find local solutions for the sustainable cities of our future.”
To learn more about Sweltering Cities, donate to the organisation or join a grassroots campaign, visit swelteringcities.org.
Brandon Bear is the queer editor of the Sydney Sentinel.
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