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ENVIRONMENT

Trees to trams: How French cities are adapting to summer heatwaves

The world is heating up, and France is no exception. Here is how the country plans to change the landscape of its cities in order to cope with ever-increasing heatwaves.

Trees to trams: How French cities are adapting to summer heatwaves
A person next to the Eiffel Tower holds a smartphone indicating a temperature of 42 degrees Celsius in 2019 (Photo by Bertrand GUAY / AFP)

While the whole of France is suffering from increasing temperatures, those in cities must prepare to take on an extra dose of heat, due to “heat island effect” which makes urban environments up to 8C hotter than the countryside.

READ MORE: Scientists explain the ‘heat sink’ effect that makes Paris feel like an oven

Météo France reports that the country has suffered at least 43 heat waves have been detected since 1947, but they are becoming more alarming.

“Heat waves are increasing in intensity and frequency because of climate change,” said Robert Vautard, meteorologist and climatologist to Reporterre

They are also becoming more dangerous – Vautard explained that while the earth’s average temperature has increased by 1.5C in the last hundred years, average temperatures during heat waves have spiked even higher, becoming increasingly erratic. 

Coping with warmer temperatures is becoming a necessity, but it is in the big cities where people are sweating the most – Bordeaux, Lyon, Paris, for instance, it can be up to 8C warmer in the city centre than in the suburbs due to the urban “heat sink” effect.

French government spokesperson Olivia Grégoire last week announced that the country has devoted €500 million to encourage urban vegetation projects in order to turn ‘îlots de chaleur‘ (urban heat islands) into ‘îlots de fraicheur‘ (islands of coolness). 

South of France 

In the south of France, cities have always been designed with heat in mind – centuries-old techniques like white-painted buildings, shutters on the windows and narrow, shady streets help residents to stay cool.

Cities like Nice have even employed natural, traditional air conditioning systems – if you walk through the old town, you might notice “openings fitted with iron grills just over the doors” – they allow for fresh, cool air from the street level to come into the inside of the building.

Rural southern French ‘mas’ farmhouses were also built to keep cool, always facing south with very small windows to keep out summer heat.

But on the Côte d’Azur, temperatures are rising faster than the global average. For the rest of the world, warming occurs at 0.2C a decade, but in Côte d’Azur temperatures are increasing around 0.3C every ten years.

During the 2019 heatwave, southern France’s Gallargues-le-Montueux village, located in the Gard département broke heat records when it recorded 45.9C. Warming temperatures will impact the region so much so that it may even warrant a new climate classification in the next 50 years.

All this means that the traditional cooling techniques may not be enough to allow locals to cope with soaring temperatures.

For densely populated Marseille, the city will try to add breathing space between its closely aligned buildings: the objective is that for each urban block, there will be gaps between streets and a changing of the height between these spaces (like hollowing out the base) in order to better allow natural ventilation and airflow.

For wider streets, the city is looking at adding shade coverings over the blocks to keep them cool, and as the city is prone to flooding, grassy areas to plant trees will also be used for water retention, which also has a cooling effect.

In the north

Meanwhile, in northern parts of the country, cities were generally built with the intention to keep heat in, rather than out, meaning that they cope poorly with heatwaves.

Larger windows – a feature that is common in cities like Paris – wide boulevards covered in dark asphalt and roofs made of zinc are all well suited to cooler months, but means cities turn into ovens during a heatwave.

The more green space a city has, the more the temperature falls, so cities like Lille and Paris which are particularly densely populated and lack green space, are engaging in major ‘re-greening’ programmes.

On top of this, all French cities have some challenges in common: monuments historiques, or buildings registered as national heritage sites, where there is a lengthy process to make any changes or alterations that might impact the building or the character of the area.

Then, there is the challenge of the places that people simply do not want to see altered – like the area around the Eiffel Tower, for instance. 

READ MORE: Plan to fell trees near Eiffel Tower causes backlash from residents in French capital

But some cities do have ambitious plans to counter rising temperatures.

Americans might be wondering if this will involve more air conditioning in French buildings – unfortunately, the answer is no: air-con actually makes the heat island effect worse by pumping hot air back out onto the streets (as well as obviously guzzling energy to operate the systems, contributing to the climate change that is at the root of the problem).

Instead, it’s about finding ways to redesign city spaces to mitigate the extreme heat that is here to stay:

Paris plans

Paris’ climate action plan, released in 2018, defines how the densely populated city plans to cope with climate change, particularly its status as a heat island, between 2020 and 2030.

Along with the goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050, Paris hopes to prepare itself for “long periods of extreme heat,” warning that “the scorching summer of 2003 may well become a “normal” summer in 2050. 

Solar power plants and solar shading – to aid in its carbon neutral goals, the city of Paris hopes to invest in urban solar power plants, and one will be installed in the Bois de Vincennes flower park.

The city wants this ‘solar power plant’ to also incorporate solar shade structures in public places, in order to “combine the benefits of energy production with protection against extreme heat”

Training “energy facilitators” and “eco-managers” – these people would work with stakeholders in individual neighbourhoods to oversee greening projects.

The action plan says they would “keep an eye on vulnerable people during heat waves, facilitate the lending or hiring of property and equipment such as bicycles between residents, manage a mini-urban logistics hub, carry out the pre-collection of certain types of waste or transfer bulky waste items to waste sorting and recovery centres.” 

Cool islands and routes in Paris – The city plans to keep and maintain its interactive map that will show you where to keep and stay cool during periods of extreme heat.

As of 2018, the city had already identified around 700 ‘cool islands,’ like museums, libraries, swimming spots, and green spaces. But, the goal is that by 2030, the City will create or open at least an extra 300.

READ MORE: Climate change: What can we expect future French summers to look like?

Schoolyard oases – Removing asphalt from school yards and increasing green space is also part of the plan.

The city’s plan to build more ‘oases’ will help to create more cool islands. As schoolyards take up over half a million square metres in Paris, this offers a large amount of space that can be radically cooled down. In 2020, the city started with just three schools, and will continue expanding throughout the decade.

New roofs for Paris – Paris’ rooftops are a huge part of the city’s architectural history and identity, but they are also heat conductors. The city of Paris has proposed to that rooftops that are either too steep or facing the wrong direction ought to be  “covered in vegetation or reflective paint” in order to reduce urban heat island effect. 

More trees – Having already added almost 50 hectares of trees during the last climate action plan, Paris has a new goal of increasing its tree canopy by 2 percent – this would mean adding more than 20,000 trees. 

Greening the tramways – Finally, Paris’ tramways will get a facelift by adding grass and getting rid of the heat-soaking concrete beneath the rails

Finally, during heat waves the city will continue using its emergency plan, intended to inform and protect vulnerable people (and the general population) of where and how to stay cool. 

READ MORE: How France plans to ‘heatwave proof’ its cities

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CLIMATE CRISIS

Firefighters contain French blazes but caution reigns

A huge fire that has devastated swathes of southwestern France appeared contained on Friday as French and foreign firefighters worked flat out, but blistering temperatures made victory uncertain, local authorities said.

Firefighters contain French blazes but caution reigns

The 40-kilometre active fire front in the Gironde and Landes departments around Bordeaux “has not developed, but the weather conditions are pushing us towards extreme vigilance”, deputy prefect Ronan Leaustic told reporters.

Temperatures stood at 39C in the fire zone, just like the day before.

No new evacuations had been ordered on top of the 10,000 people already asked to leave, Leaustic added.

But “temperatures continue to rise and the water table keeps falling”, he said.

EU members including Germany, Poland, Austria and Romania have pledged reinforcements totalling 361 firefighters to join the roughly 1,100 French ones on the ground, along with several water-bombing planes from the European Union fleet.

‘Helping you guys’

Many of the newcomers went into action on Friday.

“It doesn’t matter which country we’re in, we’re firefighters, we are able to help people around the world,” said Cristian Buhaianu, who commands a 77-strong firefighting contingent from Romania.

At the Merignac air base, near the southwestern city of Bordeaux, where Canadair planes and other firefighting aircraft are stationed, a Greek pilot said scenes of devastation like the ones seen in France were commonplace in his home country.

“We see this every year in Greece, and right now we see this in France,” the pilot, 36-year-old Anastasis Sariouglou told AFP. “We have the feeling of helping you guys and it’s nice.”

In the hard-hit area around the village of Hostens, the thick smoke seen on Thursday gave way to blue skies and occasional clouds.

France has been buffeted this summer by a historic drought that has forced water use restrictions nationwide, as well as a series of heatwaves that experts say are being driven by climate change.

The blaze near Bordeaux erupted in July — the driest month seen in France since 1961 — destroying 14,000 hectares and forcing thousands of people to evacuate before it was contained.

But it continued to smoulder in the tinder-dry pine forests and peat-rich soil.

Officials suspect arson may have played a role in the latest flare-up, which has burned 7,400 hectares since Tuesday.

‘Forced to adapt’

Fires in 2022 have ravaged an area three times the annual average over the past 10 years, with blazes also active in the Alpine Jura, Isere and Ardeche regions this week.

The Ardeche fire “is far from under control, because the site is very difficult to reach”, said Jean Jaussaud, a local emergency services commander.

European Copernicus satellite data showed more carbon dioxide greenhouse gas — over one million tonnes — had been released from 2022’s forest fires in France than in any summer since records began in 2003.

On Friday, 19 departments were still at the highest orange heat alert level set by weather authority Meteo-France.

This year’s summer resembled predictions for “an average summer in the middle of this century” under pessimistic climate change scenarios, Meteo-France expert Jean-Michel Soubeyroux told AFP.

Temperatures were “unprecedented”, said wine-grower Maurin Berenger from the southwestern Lot department.

“We’ve been forced to adapt, we work from very early in the morning or even at night. I started at 3:00 am last night, and people with farm hands start at 6:00 to avoid the heat”.

Paris-based pensioner Caroline Dubois, 72, said she was “leaving all the windows in the apartment open so there’s a breeze”.

Weather forecasts suggest France’s third heatwave this year will be broken by storms over the weekend.

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