Europe’s Cities Turn to Traditional Techniques Amid Escalating Heat Waves

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As scorching heatwaves tighten their grip on Europe this summer, experts assert that no singular architectural approach can fully address the sweltering conditions that have enveloped significant parts of the continent. Instead, sustainable building techniques rooted in age-old traditions hold promise in safeguarding residents from soaring temperatures, particularly in areas where air conditioning is less prevalent.

Architectural features such as courtyards, robust shutters, reflective coatings, and white-stone facades offer a natural means of maintaining cooler indoor environments while diminishing the necessity for energy-intensive air conditioning. However, contemporary construction trends, especially prevalent in Mediterranean cities currently grappling with extreme heat, often embrace Western designs that inadvertently trap heat, laments Marialena Nikolopoulou, a sustainable architecture professor at the University of Kent.

Nikolopoulou, speaking from Athens, Greece, which experienced an average daily maximum temperature of 92 degrees Fahrenheit (33.4 Celsius) in July, notes that the influx of Western architecture has disregarded local traditions, thereby exacerbating heat-related challenges. In places like Greece, modern high-rises and heat-absorbing materials like asphalt amplify the urban “heat island” effect, driving cities to become notably hotter than their surrounding rural areas. Greece’s ongoing heatwave has further exacerbated tinder-dry conditions, contributing to widespread wildfires.

Across the Atlantic in the United States, efforts to alleviate building heat gain include low-cost initiatives like applying reflective coatings or painting rooftops white. Miami-Dade County in Florida, for instance, secured substantial federal funding to retrofit structures for enhanced summer coolness.

Mediterranean nations like Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal have long integrated architectural elements that facilitate natural cooling. Traditional homes boast thick walls that absorb and subsequently release heat, while shading features like pergolas and narrow passageways work in harmony to maintain comfortable indoor temperatures and limit sun exposure. Moreover, tree-lined streets and pathways offer pedestrians cooling shade.

The escalating frequency and intensity of European heatwaves, coupled with a notable absence of widespread air conditioning, have spurred governments into action. In Greece, Italy, and Spain, protective measures include guiding residents toward communal cooling spaces, deploying heatwave warning systems, and crafting small neighborhood parks that can be several degrees cooler than streets.

Cooling specialists emphasize that a sustainable response must move beyond overreliance on energy-intensive air conditioning. These conventional cooling systems, including air conditioners and refrigeration units, contribute up to 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, exceeding the combined emissions from both aviation and sea travel, as highlighted in a 2019 World Bank report. In the quest for climate resilience, embracing traditional architectural wisdom and innovative cooling approaches emerges as a crucial pathway forward.

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