Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The French capital is rolling out its new heat emergency procedures as Europe boils in a record-breaking heat wave.
Over the past year, Paris has adopted a comprehensive emergency plan to respond to extreme heat events—part of a larger scheme to boost the city’s climate resilience. That plan may have come in the nick of time.
This week, the French capital, like much of Europe, is hot as hell. Beginning last weekend, a bubble of hot air has been drawn northward by winds from North Africa, and a large section of the continent, stretching from Gibraltar right up to the Baltic, is now broiling under a record-breakingly intense heat wave. Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic have recorded their highest ever temperatures for June, reaching 38.5 Celsius (101 Fahrenheit) on the German-Polish border. In Spain, wildfires have engulfed up to 10,000 acres of parched Catalonian farmland. And it’s getting worse: Temperatures in France this weekend may hit an unprecedented 45 Celsius (113 Fahrenheit).
This isn’t just uncomfortable: It’s a potential public health emergency that risks a repeat of the horrific heat wave of 2003, which saw up to 15,000 premature deaths across France, 500 of which were in Paris itself. Thankfully, after a preemptive announcement of a heat emergency on Saturday from Mayor Anne Hidalgo, Paris has a host of measures in place designed to mitigate the worst effects.
First off, there is the city’s heat danger register. Called Chalex, this is a self-declared list of people especially vulnerable to high temperatures, such as the elderly or people with breathing problems, who can register for it with a free phone call. Those registered get a phone check up and cooling advice, with a medical professional dispatched to their home if necessary.
Other vulnerable groups are also getting targeted attention. Kindergartens all get temporary air conditioners, while parents of students are given “heat wave kits” offering advice and lists of child-friendly activities in cooled spaces. Three of Paris’s public bathhouses (which date back to the period before many Parisians had bathroom facilities at home) stay open until 10 p.m., and some public swimming pools across the city stays open until 10:30 p.m. A Salvation Army-run homeless shelter offering shade, showers, and water has its opening extended to seven days, while an 100-strong outreach team works to ensure, if possible, that the homeless stay safe.
Next up, Paris is trying to keep the streets cool—or at least some of them. In addition to its 1,200 permanent public fountains, the city is deploying 48 misting machines in public squares, and 35 fire hydrants have been fitted with special misting/drinking devices to provide both cooling and cold drinking water. Seventeen of the 20 arrondissements open special air-conditioned cooling rooms during the afternoons, usually in the district’s town hall. Parks also play a key role in the plans. Eighteen of them stay open 24/7, with five of those having their hours extended.
In the short-term, this should help stave off emergencies for some vulnerable Parisians, while making life a little more pleasant for many others. Long-term, however, the city is aware that far more is needed. As a densely packed mass of limestone, metal, concrete, and asphalt, Paris generates a powerful heat island effect—in extreme cases, there can be as much as 10 degrees C difference in temperature between the hottest parts of the city and its rural hinterland. And while air conditioning is increasingly common for stores and some public buildings, it remains relatively rare in private homes. Accordingly, the city is in the middle of a drive to manage heat by “demineralising,” softening its surfaces with more porous road and sidewalk coverings, planting green roofs, and adding trees wherever possible.
The potential benefits in terms of heat management are huge. An asphalt-topped roof baking in the sun can reach temperatures of up 80 degrees C (176 F), Le Parisien notes. Cover that roof with greenery and you can cap temperature as low as 29 degrees C (84 F). Likewise, mature trees generate both shade and cooling vapor in volumes that an air-conditioning system could only hope to attain.
In the light of this, plans such as Paris’s recent announcement of new urban micro-forests in key locations are not just yet more aesthetic icing on top of a very heavily frosted cake. They may be essential steps for a city trying to maintain habitable conditions in a near future that could see highs of up to 50 degrees C (122 F) by 2100. Parisian housing is not completely unequipped for hot weather—the French use of external shutters at least helps keep interiors cool—but even here, retrofitting can only do so much in architecture designed for a more forgiving summer climate.
This is important to note. The city’s steps are encouraging, but they may not be enough to prevent premature deaths, and they fall short of the more drastic measures suggested by French Greens, which include making all public transit free and banning cars during temperature spikes. As global warming’s effects intensify, the sort of extra measures Paris is currently using are likely to become the norm in northern cities historically unaccustomed to dangerous temperature spikes. They’re going to have to be.