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.
A record-breaking heat wave across London, Paris, and Amsterdam is signaling an urgent need for design and cultural changes to combat climate change.
For anyone worried about global warming, this week’s weather reports in Northern Europe will only further that anxiety.
Paris recorded its highest temperature ever at 1:42 p.m. Thursday, reaching 41 degrees Celsius, or 106 Fahrenheit. Further north, London may also break past records by reaching 39 Celsius (102 Fahrenheit), while Germany recorded its highest-ever temperature of 40.5 Celsius (105 Fahrenheit). All of this is coming on the heels of a June heat wave that broke previous record highs for that month in seven countries.
It might be a shock to learn that Amsterdam’s high temperatures are surpassing highs even in Las Vegas or Albuquerque. Not only are temperatures exceeding pretty much everywhere in the United States right now, they are doing so in an environment that is notably poorly equipped much to deal with such extremes. In London, July highs are typically around 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Home builders’ priority is often to fit in as many exterior windows as possible, bringing in light to leaven the gothic weight of the country’s autumn-to-spring perma-gloaming. Verandas are all but unheard of, shutters are a rare olde-worlde affectation, and awnings are exclusively for shops. Air conditioning is for commercial premises, while fly screens are something you’ll only find at an old-fashioned butcher. Our homes have always focused on keeping heat in. There’s been little thought expended on how to keep it out.
If such extremes are the new normal—and it looks as if they are—then things will have to change, a lot. Better ventilation and such additions as green roofs could improve things, although most roofs are pitched to deal with all our rain. Another basic step would be getting sunshades for windows of the type that are typical in Europe’s south (in Greece they often don’t bother taking them up even in winter). Managing rising temperatures in environments will still require not just retrofitting housing, but also undergoing a cultural shift—even simple things like keeping the blinds down during the day are novel in Britain, and we only have a month or so a year to learn the ropes.
Belatedly, cities that have historically had less-than-blazing summertime climates are catching up with the pressures of scorching summers like 2019’s. As CityLab has previously reported, Paris’s heat resilience plan is a little ahead of the game, and Brussels (37 degrees Celsius/99 Fahrenheit on Thursday) has also introduced a heat wave plan that, like Paris’s, involves health professionals checking regularly on vulnerable people. It also has some other measures that straddle the boundary between sensible and tokenistic, such as giving people over 65 free entry to six air-conditioned museums. Germany is also learning from other recent heat crises. Last year, hot weather caused many fish in rivers and lakes to die as oxygen levels dropped. Accordingly in Hamburg (34 Celsius/93 Fahrenheit on Thursday), authorities have set up a hotline for people to warn them of dying fish (so far, things seem fine).
In London, people are being cooked anew on the city’s notorious Boris buses just as their promoter, Boris Johnson, becomes prime minister. Mayor Sadiq Khan has used the heat to promote the city’s various anti-climate-change actions on Twitter. At the very least, high temperatures like the city is currently enduring could bolster attempts by London and other cities to slash carbon emissions and pollution by reducing the number of cars circulating.
Abkühlung à la Wickelfisch 💦— Wickelfisch (@wickelfisch) June 26, 2019
❗️bitte beachtet die Schwimmregeln und Schwimmzonen im Rhein❗️ Generell sollten nur geübte Schwimmer den Bach runter 👈🏻#wickelfisch #rheinschwimmen #season2019 #38grad #abkühlung #schwimmsack #basel #rhy #lovebasel #summerinthecity pic.twitter.com/yeocPjKBLg
Even under heat, however, there are still some European urbanites out there using the warmth to have a good time. Some commuters in Basel, Switzerland, have found an ingenious way to keep cool in its current heat (36 Celsius/97 Fahrenheit): They’re swimming to or from work down the River Rhine. At this point the river is fairly clean, while in high summer it’s also warmish and not particularly fast. Locals who float into town on the river regularly use a simple form of kit called a Wickelfisch, a waterproof, fish-shaped bag that you can put your stuff in and then inflate as a float. (You can see how a Wickelfisch works in this video.)
Such pleasures might seem a poor consolation for the mix of discomfort and anxiety for the future that the hot summer has brought—but I suppose that if Northern Europe is close to burning, someone might as well fiddle.