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Heat islands in cities – what can we do to reduce the temperature in urban environments?

view of downtown raleigh, north carolina from street level, hdr image

Heat islands in cities – what can we do to reduce the temperature in urban environments?

As cities grow and develop, more challenges arise related to maintaining thermal comfort for their residents. One of the most serious problems facing modern conurbations is the phenomenon of urban heat islands. Heat islands are areas where temperatures are significantly higher than in the surrounding rural areas, mainly due to human activity. In cities, asphalt streets, concrete buildings, and the lack of greenery effectively accumulate heat, leading to the formation of local microclimates with elevated temperatures.

The problem of urban heat islands is not merely a matter of discomfort – it has serious consequences for public health, the environment, and the economy. Higher temperatures increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases, exacerbate respiratory problems, and can lead to fatal heat strokes. For the environment, heat islands mean greater energy consumption for air conditioning, which in turn contributes to the rise in greenhouse gas emissions. The economic costs associated with cooling urban spaces and treating health effects are also significant.

Therefore, it is crucial that we take actions aimed at reducing this phenomenon. In this article, we will examine the causes of urban heat islands and propose specific strategies that can help lower temperatures in urban environments. From greening urban spaces to employing modern cooling technologies and intelligent urban planning, there are many ways to make our cities more bearable on hot days and more pleasant for their residents.

Causes of Urban Heat Islands

Urban Construction

One of the main factors contributing to the formation of urban heat islands is the way cities are built. Traditional building materials such as concrete, asphalt, and brick have high thermal capacity and low reflectivity. This means they absorb and store solar heat during the day and then gradually release it at night, keeping temperatures elevated even after sunset. Additionally, dense construction hinders natural air circulation, which exacerbates the warming effect of the city.

Lack of Greenery

Cities often lack sufficient greenery that could act as a natural “air conditioner”. Trees, shrubs, and lawns not only provide shade but can also significantly lower the surrounding temperature through the process of transpiration (the evaporation of water from leaves). Unfortunately, in many urban areas, greenery gives way to buildings and roads, which contributes to temperature increases.


Traffic and the associated heat emissions are another significant factor influencing the formation of heat islands. Car engines, especially during peak hours, emit large amounts of heat, which further warms the urban air. Additionally, air pollution related to transport can create a “heat smog” that further hinders the dissipation of heat from the city surface to the atmosphere.

Air Conditioning and Heating

Air conditioning and heating systems, essential for maintaining thermal comfort in buildings, also contribute to the formation of heat islands. Air conditioners pump heat from the inside of buildings to the outside, increasing the ambient temperature. Similarly, heating systems emit heat, which can be beneficial in winter but contributes to additional warming of the city in warmer months.

Strategies to Reduce Urban Temperatures

Urban Greenery

One of the most effective ways to reduce urban temperatures is to increase the amount of greenery. Plants have the ability to absorb solar radiation and lower the temperature through the process of transpiration.

Creating Parks and Gardens

Creating new parks and gardens in cities is one of the simplest methods to reduce temperature. Green spaces not only provide shade but also improve air quality and have a positive impact on residents’ mental health. When designing parks, it is worth considering plant species diversity, which will increase their cooling efficiency.

Green Roofs

Green roofs are an innovative solution that involves covering building roofs with a layer of vegetation. These types of roofs not only insulate buildings from excessive heating but also reduce the heat island effect, improve rainwater retention, and increase biodiversity in cities.

Vertical Gardens

Vertical gardens, or green walls, are another solution that can help reduce urban temperatures. They can be installed on building facades, which not only improves the city’s aesthetics but also acts as a natural thermal barrier, reducing the heating of buildings and their surroundings.

Use of High Reflectivity Materials

Materials with high reflectivity (albedo) reflect more solar radiation, preventing surface heating.

Painting Roofs and Facades with Light Colours

Painting roofs and facades with light, reflective paints can significantly reduce the amount of heat absorbed by buildings. Light colours reflect solar radiation, reducing the amount of heat absorbed by roofs and walls.

Use of Cooling Materials

Cooling materials, such as special coatings or high albedo paints, can be used on road surfaces, pavements, and squares. These types of materials reflect more sunlight and emit less heat, helping to reduce temperature at street level.

Changes in Urban Infrastructure

Urban infrastructure can also be adapted in ways that promote temperature reduction.

Permeable Surfaces

Permeable surfaces, which allow water to seep into the ground, are more effective at managing rainwater and can help cool the surroundings. Water that seeps into the ground evaporates, which additionally lowers the temperature.

Modernisation of Public Transport

Promoting and developing environmentally friendly public transport can significantly reduce heat emissions from vehicles. Introducing electric buses, trams, and city bikes helps reduce the heat island effect.

Promoting Cycling and Walking

Encouraging residents to use bicycles and walk by building appropriate infrastructure, such as bike paths and pavements, also helps reduce heat emitted by vehicles.

Technologies and Innovations

Modern Cooling Technologies

Modern cooling technologies can significantly contribute to reducing temperatures in cities, both in buildings and in open spaces.

Adiabatic Cooling

Adiabatic cooling is a process in which air is cooled by evaporating water. It is more energy-efficient than traditional air conditioners and can be used on various scales, from small devices to systems for entire buildings. Adiabatic cooling is particularly effective in dry climates, where it can lower the temperature by several degrees.

Building Energy Management Systems

Intelligent Building Energy Management Systems (BEMS) monitor and optimise energy use, allowing efficient management of air conditioning and heating. These systems can automatically adjust indoor temperatures, reducing heat emissions outside and helping mitigate the heat island effect.

Intelligent Urban Planning

Urban planning that considers the needs of the environment and residents can significantly reduce the heat island effect.

Integration of Greenery in Urban Plans

Designing cities with green spaces such as parks, gardens, and green roofs can significantly lower the temperature in the city. Integrating greenery into urban plans not only helps reduce heat but also improves the quality of life for residents.

Designing Urban Spaces with Airflow in Mind

Optimal placement of buildings and open spaces can improve air circulation in cities. Allowing free wind flow through cities helps disperse heat and can lower the temperature. Designing urban spaces in a way that minimises wind blockage can significantly reduce the heat island effect.

Examples of Good Practices

Singapore: Green Roofs and Walls

Singapore is a pioneer in using green roofs and walls to combat the heat island effect. The city actively promotes greening buildings through subsidy programmes and regulations that require green roofs on new buildings.

Copenhagen: Rainwater Management Systems

Copenhagen has invested in advanced rainwater management systems that help cool the city. The city uses permeable surfaces and green roofs for rainwater retention, contributing to temperature reduction.

New York: Green Infrastructure Programmes

New York has introduced extensive green infrastructure programmes such as “MillionTreesNYC”, which aims to plant millions of trees throughout the city. These programmes not only improve air quality but also reduce the heat island effect by increasing greenery.

Polish Initiatives

There are also initiatives in Poland aimed at reducing the heat island effect in cities.

Cities such as Warsaw, Kraków, and Wrocław are implementing greening programmes to increase the number of urban parks and gardens. These initiatives include tree planting, creating new green spaces, and developing green infrastructure.

Analysis of the Effectiveness of Implemented Solutions

Analysis of the effectiveness of implemented solutions in Polish cities shows that urban greenery can significantly lower temperatures and improve residents’ comfort. These examples indicate the need for further investment in green infrastructure and modern cooling technologies.

Benefits of Implementing Green Solutions

Improving Residents’ Quality of Life

Urban greenery has a direct impact on improving residents’ quality of life. It provides places for recreation, relaxation, and contact with nature, which positively affects mental and physical health. Parks, gardens, and green roofs contribute to reducing stress, improving well-being, and increasing physical activity among residents.

Environmental Protection

Plants absorb carbon dioxide and other pollutants, helping combat climate change and improve air quality. Urban greenery also promotes biodiversity by providing habitats for various species of fauna and flora. Additionally, by retaining rainwater, green surfaces help manage water resources and prevent urban flooding.

Long-Term Economic Savings

Although investments in green infrastructure and modern cooling technologies may involve initial costs, they bring long-term savings. Lowering urban temperatures reduces the demand for cooling energy, resulting in lower energy bills and fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Improving residents’ health also means lower healthcare costs.

Challenges and Future Directions

Despite numerous advantages, implementing green solutions in cities faces various challenges.

Financial and Logistical Barriers

The costs of investing in green infrastructure and modern technologies can be high, which is a barrier for many cities. Additionally, it requires proper planning, management, and maintenance, which can be logistically complex. Financial support from governments and international organisations, as well as public-private partnerships, can help overcome these barriers.

Role of Education and Public Awareness

Education and raising public awareness are crucial for the effective implementation of green solutions. Residents need to be aware of the benefits of green infrastructure and actively engage in planning and implementation processes. Educational programmes, information campaigns, and public consultations can help build support for green initiatives.

Potential Directions for Further Development

In the future, it will be necessary to further develop and implement innovative solutions that effectively counteract the heat island effect. Research on new cooling materials, the development of energy management technologies, and the integration of sustainable urban planning will be key to future actions. Cities can also draw inspiration from the experiences of other conurbations and adapt best practices to their specific conditions.

Reducing the urban heat island effect is a complex but necessary task to improve the quality of life of city residents and protect the environment. Implementing green solutions, modern technologies, and intelligent urban planning can bring many benefits, both in terms of public health, environmental protection, and the economy. By overcoming financial and logistical barriers, educating residents, and promoting sustainable practices, cities can effectively fight the heat island phenomenon and become more resilient to climate change.