Housing incentives and providing cooler public spaces essential as extreme heat rolls on: WSU researcher

As the Blue Mountains continues to swelter in the extreme summer heat, recent research in western Sydney has revealed the heat is leading to sedentary lifestyles and social isolation.

Researchers from Western Sydney University found people were staying indoors and relying heavily on air-conditioning, and a lack of cool areas in public spaces was leading to sedentary lifestyles and social isolation.

“New houses in western Sydney, as all around Australia, are being designed around air-conditioning to deliver thermal comfort,” said Dr Louise Crabtree from the university’s Institute for Culture and Society .

“This leads to a perceived need for less publicly accessible infrastructure, which then exacerbates the problem. The sobering reality we confront is an Australia where 50-degrees summer days may become a normal event in Sydney by 2040, sooner in other metropolitan areas.”

Dr Crabree said the Cooling the Commons research focused on three vulnerable groups in western Sydney – mums with young kids, the elderly, and carers, and how they coped with rising temperatures.

“We could see how the lack of shaded and other cool public spaces is forcing an increasingly sedentary lifestyle,” Dr Crabtree said.

She says parks were popular spots on a hot day, but there needed to be more shade provided and the surfaces around play equipment also needed to be re-examined.

“On a hot day, softfall and Astroturf is too hot to touch. Grass is the coolest surface as cover but that has maintenance issues,” Dr Crabtree said.

Shade around and on the way to bus stops was also important, otherwise people without transport wouldn’t leave their house.

“We found people were lying on the floor in the coolest room of their house for hours,” Dr Crabtree said.

She also talked of teenagers jumping into water features at housing developments just to keep cool.

Creating cool community gardens and parks where people could gather – perhaps even community outdoor kitchens – would encourage people to socialise and keep cool at the same time.

She said homes should be built taking into account orientation, and deep shade areas, including verandahs and screening.

“The bigger challenge is the existing housing stock. If it’s been built wrong you are very constrained in what you can do, particularly if you’re renting,” Dr Crabtree said.

“There’s not much knowledge about effectively retro-fitting homes.”

She said a discussion was needed on what incentives could be offered to landlords to make it more attractive to provide cooler, energy-efficient homes.

Whether that was an energy or star rating for a home’s energy efficiency, or legislation with incentives that encouraged owners or landlords to provide more energy-efficient homes was a discussion worth having.

What she’d observed was low-income households stuck in bad housing, in the hottest parts of the city, sweltering in the heat because they didn’t have or couldn’t afford air-conditioning.

 “We need to think through strategies. It’s very piecemeal at the moment,” Dr Crabtree said.

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