The heat is rising on our planet. If you live in a city, you may notice even more alarming levels of warmth. This is the urban island effect, a phenomenon that could actually be deadly — especially for residents of low-income neighborhoods — if not deterred.
Although urbanization certainly adds perks to our lives, we need to be aware of how our actions negatively impact the environment and human health, too. Urban heat islands, which are directly created by our development, offer an unfortunate look at how people can make a difference for the worse — which is exactly why we need to consciously make a change for the better.
Highly populated areas are in immediate need of our attention. The good news is, we as individuals and as societies have the power to mitigate the urban island effect. Here’s how.
What Causes the Urban Island Effect?
The urban island effect is largely caused by a blend of urban building materials and daily human activity. For example, cities tend to use an abundance of dark-colored surfaces, such as dark roofs to black asphalt. The problem with this is that dark surfaces absorb heat instead of reflecting it away. And when grounds are paved — which is necessary for preventing flooding in urban areas — cities don’t get the cooling benefit of evaporation either. Similarly, tall buildings block wind from naturally lowering temperatures (and block heat from escaping). At the same time, shorter buildings don’t offer adequate shade.
Blend the impact of unnatural infrastructure with the abundance of pollution anywhere humans gather, and it’s clear why the urban island effect is so persistent. Though global climate change exacerbates the urban island effect — and vice versa — there’s no doubt that urban heat islands are man-made.
Tackling Traffic Congestion Is a Must
Vehicle emissions are one of the most well-known causes of pollution and rising temperatures. It’s a big reason why populated areas are so at risk to the urban island effect. And when you’re in a heavily congested city, you’re idling more than normal — which means you’re releasing emissions without even getting anywhere. And with delivery and ridesharing services growing increasingly common, traffic is only getting worse.
As individuals, we can combat urban heat islands by avoiding high-traffic areas, or by turning to driving alternatives. Consider riding a bike, using public transportation, or carpooling when a car is a must.
Combatting traffic issues can be more effective with the help of city initiatives, especially in cities with particularly bad traffic, like Boston, Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. Technology can be a big part of this.
For example, investing in tech like adaptive traffic signals can help cities identify patterns and improve the flow of traffic. Self-driving cars can also reduce accidents caused by human error and impaired driving, which are not only fatal, but also cause major slow-downs and more idling.
Beyond traffic-reducing initiatives, cities (and developers) can also help combat the urban island effect by supporting initiatives to lighten up streets and use more sustainable materials for infrastructure.
If you want to do your part in the meantime, you can contact city officials to encourage their support for these initiatives.
Sustainable Businesses Make a Difference
More and more businesses are embracing corporate social responsibility (CSR) these days. If you own a business and want to help reduce the urban island effect, you can embrace it, too.
Whether your business is large or small, CSR is all about recognizing how your business activities affect your local ecosystem. It requires you to be open to minimizing your level of consumption and even investing in renewable energy — both of which can help cool down urban areas.
Meanwhile, planting a few trees may not be a solution to global warming as a whole — but if you own a house or office in a city center, you can do your part to mitigate the urban island effect by adding vegetation to your property. If you can cover your darkest surfaces and rooftops with plants, all the better.
Plants are part of nature’s cooling system. They absorb heat-trapping carbon dioxide, which is prevalent in cities — not just because of unnatural human activity, but because of respiration, too! With so many people concentrated in one place, vegetation is needed to offset the CO2 we release.
Unfortunately, the process of urbanization has traditionally harmed plant life. But together, we help flora flourish in and nourish our cities once again.
Urban Areas Need Our Help
Urban heat islands can have a negative effect on our health and our direct environment, all while contributing to the greater issue of global warming. To mitigate the rising temperatures in cities, we — as individuals, as businesses, and as cities — need to work together to tackle the root cause: unsustainable human activity. Whether you’re planting trees, using more sustainable transportation methods, or supporting government initiatives, you can do your part to tackle the urban island effect.
Guest Author Bio
Jori Hamilton is a writer and journalist from the Pacific Northwest who covers social justice issues, healthcare, and politics. You can follow her work on twitter @HamiltonJori, and through her portfolio at Writer Jori Hamilton.