Michael Moynihan: We can learn a lot on the climate change decisions of others

Although the coronavirus has done a good job of distracting us from other headaches, the issue of rising temperatures cannot be ignored
Michael Moynihan: We can learn a lot on the climate change decisions of others

Princes St, Cork, gets ready for outdoor dining on earlier this month underneath their new street padogdas. Picture: Dan Linehan

It’s so long now since I spent any time in the office that I’ll have to rely on memory, but in this case the memory is pretty sharp.

In our office there’s a picture from 1954 of small kids in Cork enjoying an ice cream in the sunshine. The picture is blown up and occupies most of a wall, which means the detail is sharp: the curve of the ice cream, the seriousness of the children’s faces.

And their clothes. Though it’s warm enough for ice cream — warm enough for short pants, in fact — one of the little boys has a woollen sweater zipped up almost to his neck, with a shirt underneath it. And dungarees over it. The little girl next to him has a cardigan buttoned all the way up.

Lest anyone think I have an issue with our forebears, you need only stroll into the city centre any day the sun is out to see similar schizophrenia when the temperature climbs towards 20 degrees.

Rainproof macs and flimsy T-shirts are sometimes worn at the same time.

Our notion of what’s appropriate for the heat is elastic, to say the least. The less said about the socks-and-sandals combination, a fail-safe ethnic marker of the Irishman abroad, the better.

I have serious reasons, however, for bringing up heat in the city.

Though the coronavirus has done a good job of distracting us from other headaches, the issue of climate change remains in the background, and somewhere like Cork — low-lying, prone to flooding — needs to keep more of an eye on this than many other cities.

The need to cool things is clearly more pressing in other jurisdictions.

Some figures suggest more people in the United States die of heat-stroke and other heat-related issues than from any other natural disasters, for instance.

Nearer home, heatwaves in France have also resulted in fatalities as the vulnerable, find the conditions truly unbearable, particularly in cities.

In comparison, our occasional grouching when the mercury inches above twenty degrees seems a little theatrical.

But rising temperatures are a real issue. If there’s a silver lining to the ever-increasing heat in those other countries, it may be that it forces the authorities to recognise an issue, and forces them to deal with it.

In Ireland warm weather is more an occasional, welcome treat than brutal, punishing threat, but there are still lessons for us.

I saw recently, for instance, that the city authorities in Chicago are conducting a live experiment in this area — on its own roof.

The roof area of the Chicago City Hall is roughly 40,000 square feet, so the municipal authority have covered half of that with a garden, and the results have been striking.

For one thing the 20,000 plants on the roof can gather up to three quarters of an inch of rainfall, easing the pressure on the city’s sewers; for another, in a baking Chicago summer the heat in the garden side of the roof can be almost half that in the uncovered half.

This has led to many other buildings creating roof gardens within the Chicago city area, with resulting benefits in the short and medium term.

Could you see this happening on the roof of Cork City Hall, with branches and tendrils rolling down over the top windows? I could.

Going upwards

Chicago is following a long-established pattern of going upwards with gardens. Back in the sixties Singapore realised that as a city it would have to build upwards, not out, but made sure that didn’t happen not at the expense of greenery. Now there are 240 acres of ‘sky gardens’ within the city, and its planning laws have enshrined the necessity for green spaces in law.

Though space is at a premium in Singapore, any new development must incorporate green spaces equivalent to the size of the original site. Those green spaces can be at any level, and are often in the form of balcony gardens which are overflowing with flowers and shrubs.

Rather than carp and complain, some developers have embraced the requirement with open arms. The Oasia Hotel in downtown Singapore is wrapped in a 200-metre trellis with plants and shrubs everywhere: the architect said the intention was to create “the notion of a huge tree in the city”, and they certainly succeeded, providing vegetation that’s eleven times greater in area than that of the building’s original footprint.

The benefits are varied. That amount of vegetation is cooling for the environment, generates oxygen in the atmosphere and — not least — is a calming sight in an urban environment.

Maybe something for Cork city’s new trees officer to look into: if the Elysian or one of its newer counterparts were covered in greenery, wouldn’t that have an impact when you look up from your coffee and see it in the distance?

Cork city’s roads division might want to have a look at what their opposite numbers in Los Angeles are doing, come to think of it.

I was amazed to read in The Guardian that over 10% of the land area within that city’s boundaries is made up of black asphalt — ie, its roads.

Given that black asphalt absorbs up to 95% of the sun’s energy, the Los Angeles city authorities decided to try covering at least some of the roads in a white sealant.

The good news is that that reduced temperatures by up to five degrees celsius in the vicinity (the bad news is that the sealant costs about €34,000 per mile).

Thinking outside the box

It’s reminiscent of the initiative in New York which aims to paint rooftops a reflective white rather than absorbent black, cutting carbon emissions dramatically while also reducing temperatures because the sunlight bounces off the roof rather than heating it up, and the building it covers, like an oven.

By the way, if you think that these initiatives are laudable but a little remote from your own everyday experience, I direct you to the enterprising citizens of Basel in Switzerland.

Two years ago temperatures went over 36 degrees mark there (‘soared’ is the usual description) and a few of them decided to avail of the Rhine, which flows through the centre of the city, by swimming to work.

Having spoken to Niall Kenny in the past about the need for a lido in Cork, I feel this initiative would be welcome here, though I’m not qualified to pronounce on how healthy or not it is to use the Rhine — a river ‘not for nervous swimmers’, as one travel piece described it.

Your obvious question is one that hit me as well: someone may have Speedos under the suit leaving home but where does the suit go when you plunge into the water? What about your phone? Your laptop? Your coffee shop loyalty card?

The Swiss thought of that. You simply buy a Wickelfisch, a waterproof, fish-shaped bag and tow it along with you. When you reach your destination out you hop and retrieve your stuff.

Low-emission, healthy, cooling. The only change is we’ll have to call ours a Shandonfish, obviously.

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