By Suzanna Remmerswaal, Associate Director, Sustainability & Resilience

Summer is coming – let’s make our public spaces heat-safe AND coronavirus-safe.

Let’s be honest – 2020 has gone from bad to worse. Following a summer of catastrophic bush fires, we are now battling a health pandemic that is threatening the wellbeing and livelihoods of the nation.
From avoiding smoke inhalation and oppressive heat while fires raged in January, to bouncing around our homes during coronavirus lockdowns, our public spaces have become a sanctuary.

As we all try to remain physically active or simply let off some steam from the ‘living at work’ conundrum of remote working and home schooling, the value of public spaces has increased significantly.

During heatwaves, we see increased usage of public facilities such as libraries as people seek refuge in cooler spaces, to cope with power outages when the grid is overloaded, to recover from spending time in unshaded parks and playgrounds, or to mitigate the cost of air conditioning at home.

When the weather is even more extreme, such as the hazardous levels of air pollution from bushfires, community members are prevented from leaving home to access the benefits public spaces offer. This increased reliance on and changing nature of access to public spaces highlights our need to create spaces which are flexible, adaptable and climate-proof.

Amid the current health pandemic, councils around Sydney are also planning for the upcoming summer months that pose a significant health threat to many members of our community.

Planning for the compounding impact of coronavirus and Sydney’s rising summer temperatures is particularly challenging but applying a resilience lens will help to tackle these challenges.

What is resilience?

Urban resilience is the capacity of individuals, communities, businesses and systems to survive, adapt and thrive no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience. When disruptions such as these are expected and planned for, harm can be minimised and financial, social and environmental benefits can be realised. (100 Resilient Cities pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation).


The resilience lens for heat-safe and coronavirus-safe public spaces

A resilience-based approach can help tackle the challenges of heat and coronavirus together. The design and management of existing and future public spaces should consider:

  1. The overlapping impacts of the disruptions we are most likely to experience, such as heat and coronavirus restrictions.
  2. The needs of people who rely on access to public spaces the most.
  3. Our changing relationship to our treasured public spaces, from greater reliance to restricted access.

It’s time we made public spaces more resilient to all disruptions

In winter, local councils and other organisations who are on the frontline helping communities survive the summer heat can typically take some time to recover and plan before kicking off heat preparations for the summer months.

Many existing heatwave management plans currently rely on community members having access to public spaces to cool off. From libraries, parks, pools and even the mall, coronavirus has changed the way we use our local public spaces. Whilst coronavirus restrictions in New South Wales have eased at the time of writing, restrictions may be return.

Testing our current heatwave management plans and future coronavirus restrictions against the combined impact of health pandemics and heatwaves provides an opportunity to avoid any unexpected consequences. Managing community needs to access cool spaces outside of the home, whilst maintaining physical distancing will be a delicate balancing act and may require direct interventions to support community members most vulnerable to the heat.

Supporting those who need it the most

By considering those community members who may be more susceptible to coronavirus and heat impacts, specific strategies can be implemented in advance.

During coronavirus restrictions, Campbelltown City Council Library introduced Click and Collect to enable continued access to library resources, with additional delivery services available for medically vulnerable community members or those over 70 years old. These deliveries also enabled welfare checks, delivering multiple benefits to those involved. Campbelltown City Council is now reviewing its management plans and current coronavirus responses to identify other ways to support the community through the summer.

Elsewhere in South West Sydney, initiatives to support funding for energy efficiency and heat proofing for lower income community members have also been identified. This Resilient Sydney initiative was identified as a result of direct consultation with community members, who saw the need for more affordable, low carbon, and comfortable homes. Funds could be directed to rebates for the installation of solar panels to offset the costs of running air-conditioning systems, complemented by battery storage and building fabric improvements.

These multi-pronged approaches serve as a good reminder that development of any measures must make allowances for additional cost burdens on the citizens they are trying to help.

In the Northern Hemisphere, Rotterdam is already reviewing its urban heat management plans to invest A$380 million in ‘corona proof’ green infrastructure, planning parks which allow for physical distancing measures.

Closer to home, increased investment in permanent and temporary cycleways in Sydney has supported alternative transport methods for those wanting to avoid public transport. Supporting continued use of these cycleways through summer’s heat will require integration of shading, appropriate materials and where possible, coronavirus-safe end of trip facilities.

By testing our open space and public facility layouts against physical distancing requirements, introducing short term interventions to support safety during increased use, and increasing shading and rain protection, our public spaces can continue to provide a safe place to spend time outside of our homes.

Planning the design and management of our public spaces to allow for coronavirus and the summer heat today will help support our communities as 2020 continues to challenge us all.

Feeling inspired? The Public Space Ideas Competition (PSIC) is seeking your ideas for the Best Resilient Public Space. Exploring the interdependencies between planning coronavirus-safe and heat-safe public spaces is a real test for resilience thinking.

With thanks to Campbelltown City Council for sharing insights on community use of their public space and facilities.

Suzanna Remmerswaal is an Associate Director in the Sustainability and Resilience team at AECOM and is based in Sydney.

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Banner Image – Campbelltown Arts Centre Japanese garden, New South Wales.