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 cool-seeking app and a butt-cooling bench are the latest tools to help people cool down.
How can you enjoy a city when it’s blazingly hot? In the middle of a heatwave that’s sweeping much of Northern Europe, Paris is taking this question seriously right now.
With daily highs well into the 80s for the past three weeks—unusually warm for this early in the summer—the city’s weather has been more or less manageable, if perhaps unpleasant for the sensitive. But the vast numbers of people spending time outdoors are sure to need some relief, and two fresh ideas could provide just that.
Mapping the cool spots
Last week, the city government, in partnership with the national public health body and weather channel Metéo-France, debuted an app called Extrema Paris, which provides up to date warnings of locations with especially high temperatures and maps 800 sites across the city that can act as refuges for people seeking cooler temperatures. Some are free to access, such as shady parks, cool churches, and shopping malls, while others charge a fee, including swimming pools and air-conditioned museums.
The app doesn’t only list these locations, it also grades outdoor spaces according to the level of relative coolness they offer compared to surrounding streets. To achieve the highest grade, an area must be at least 50 percent planted with trees and bushes.
Above is what a visitor to Notre Dame Cathedral might see if they consulted the app. It maps all the nearby fountains, two swimming pools and even what the accompanying key identifies as a “brumatiseur,” a vaporizer that releases a fine mist, in the top right hand corner outside the Hotel de Ville. It helpfully shows that the avenue of trees on the Seine bank in front of the cathedral is actually a little cooler than the park behind it—you can tell this by its darker shade of green. Churches and museums (the purple dots) are marked, while the gradations of green reveal that the lushest patches of shade nearby are not actually the large Jardin de Luxembourg but the densely planted Square Paul-Langevin and Square Paul-Painlevé, both in the bottom section of the map (and whose names pop up when you press them.
Sections of shade like the two squares can be a welcome respite in Paris, where avenues of heat-reflecting wrought iron and limestone can make it hard for people—and the whole city itself—to cool off. That’s especially true for younger and older people, who are more likely to suffer from dangerous heatstroke.
Have a seat, stay awhile
What the app doesn’t yet pinpoint, however, is Paris’s latest oasis of summer cool: a roomy 10-seat bench just installed outside the Gare de Lyon. Arguably more of a gazebo than merely a bench, the seating is pumped through with cooled water drawn from the River Seine. That means the bench seats will chill your backside and legs as soon as you sit down. Meanwhile, an attractive latticed wooden shade and a planting of ferns and lavender make it a place to linger.
Given the Gare de Lyon’s location at some distance from the river, pumping cooled water from the Seine for the mere benefit of a chilled seat might seem extravagant. But in fact, Paris pumps large volumes of water in this direction already, to supply six water cooling plants that then provide chilled air to museums, ministries, and other public buildings. Joined together by a network of over 70 kilometers of pipes, this district cooling facility (run by a company called Climespace, which has sponsored the cooled bench) requires electricity to function, but apparently consumes it at half the rate of regular air conditioning before returning the water to the Seine.
An app pinpointing city-wide cool spots and a butt-cooling station might seem like indulgent, non-vital urban hacks in the vein of Paris’s sparkling water fountains. But the heat in Paris can kill. In a terrible heatwave in 2003, an estimated 500 Parisians died prematurely, part of up to 70,000 related deaths across Europe. Such heat spikes are likely to become only more common in the coming years, and Paris is right to experiment with ways of keeping people cool—even if that means doing so from the pants up.