Global warming and heating cities: a challenge for Europe

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Climate change today is a reality. It involves lot of problems, the toughest ones being the loss of biodiversity, the rise of sea levels and the increase of temperatures. But there are also other less known phenomena connected with the global warming. One of them is the urban heat island, which is induced by materials composing the urban environment and involves numerous cities across Europe. Cement retains heat, sewer systems carry water away quickly, impeding the cooling, and heat is trapped between surfaces because of the so-called canyon effect. Thus, urban areas are generally hotter than the surrounding rural areas and in summer cities burn. “We still remember the heat wave that struck Europe in 2003, causing the death of almost 70,000 people in 12 countries,” affirms Paolo Lauriola, epidemiologist of the Environmental Protection Agency of the Emilia-Romagna Region. “The situation can only get worse, because urbanization continues to grow as well as climate changes. To address the problem monitoring, mitigation and adaptation actions are necessary.”

Fortunately, Europe is already moving in this direction. The three-year application project UHI (Urban Heat Island), has been implemented through the Central Europe Programme to reduce effects of heat waves and the final conference is scheduled for June 12, 2014. The project involved 17 partners in Central Europe among institutions and research centers, including the Italian cities of Bologna, Modena, Padua and Venice. It mainly consisted in redesigning urban areas in a green way, connecting global models and urban housing construction’s models. The main interventions have been construction plans, addition of green areas and water surfaces, restructuration of industrial districts, communication and public education to allow people to adopt conscious behaviors. Davide Fava, coordinator of the Transnational Scientific Board of the project, explains: “In order to develop this project we assumed an approach based on dialogue and confrontation. We made a choice of governance, deciding to involve decision-makers, experts, urban planners but also citizens, because prevention creates positive solutions that make it convenient. In 50 years from now, heat peaks in summer will be 5-7 °C higher than today, which means that rates of mortality might increase: we have to be prepared to face this future.”

But UHI is not the only European project that dealt with the problem of heat in urban areas: the project COOL-Coverings, which started in June 2010 with the aim of cutting energy consumption, improving indoor comfort and reducing the appearance of urban heat islands. COOL-Coverings developed innovative coatings for buildings so that their exteriors, thanks to nanoparticles and micro pigments, could reflect light instead of absorbing heat. The project involved 14 partner organizations from industry and academia, four of which were Italian: the Center for Colloid and Surface Science of the University of Florence, the Polytechnic University of the Marche, D’Appolonia and MBN Nanomaterialia.

COOL-Coverings ended in 2013, but another project is currently in progress: TURAS (2011-2016), which aims to deal with the climate challenges and improve urban life. Contrasting flood risk, taking care of biodiversity and supporting local businesses are some of the main goals. Stuttgart, for example, is trying to cool down the city using natural processes, like building a “green wall” in a park area that can use the water while tempering summertime heat. The project brings together decision makers from local authorities, SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) and academics to develop strategies, spatial scenarios and guidance tools for more sustainable and resilient European cities. A key element is engaging with local citizens to get their input on sustainability issues; indeed, TURAS project team is developing an interactive forum for people to interact and get involved.

Today the European Commission door is still open to new ideas. The Horizon 2020 Call “Smart cities and communities” for 2015 is presently accessible: areas of interest are those of low energy districts, integrated infrastructures and sustainable urban mobility. There are over EUR 108 million at disposal of the best projects coming from municipalities and industries that can achieve innovative solutions for energy efficiency, aimed to guarantee a greater resistance to climate impacts.

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