kids

The unexpected side-effect of Australia having longer and longer heatwaves.

Okay, so we complain about the heat every summer. Nothing new. But the heatwave like the one that some parts of Australia are expecting this week? That’s not normal.

“It will be four days, in places like Penrith [in western Sydney] and even the Hunter Valley, where you have temperatures above 40 degrees,” says Dr Sebastian Pfautsch, senior research fellow in urban ecosystem science at Western Sydney University.

“To have that sweltering heat for such a long time, that’s unusual.”

And the families living in new homes on small lots in our cities’ outer suburbs are really feeling it.

Dr Pfautsch has been measuring the heat in new developments in western Sydney, where there are few trees and lots of black bitumen, and has found that temperatures can be eight or more degrees higher than in surrounding bushland.

He says black roofs on houses – which are compulsory in some new developments – are “heat islands”. So are wide streets and the massive car parks surrounding shopping malls. Not only do they heat up quickly, they take a longer time to cool down than grass would.

“Black asphalt and concrete just release heat much more slowly throughout the night,” Dr Pfautsch explains.

It’s the kids living in these new developments that I feel sorry for. What do you do during the summer holidays when your yard is too tiny for trees to provide a bit of cooling shade? When you open your back door and you’re faced with a small paved area and a wave of 40-degree-plus heat? Of course you’re not going to want to go out there.

Maybe, if you’re lucky, your parents will drive you to an indoor play centre. You’re not likely to want to go to an outdoor playground – during the day, anyway.

Dr Pfautsch has tested some of the most common playground surfaces, such as rubber materials and Astroturf, and has found that they can reach temperatures of more than 90 degrees, even on a normal summer’s day of 34 degrees.

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“These playgrounds are very very unsafe, the way that we’re building them,” he says.

Research has been done in the US into what happens when suburbs start heating up.

Not surprisingly, there’s a direct relationship between outside temperatures and time spent indoors. People are becoming more isolated inside their homes.

“The people are not going outside anymore,” Dr Pfautsch says. “All they do is get into their car, drive somewhere, get out of their car and drive back home.”

I don’t want this to be one of those pieces where I yabber on about “back when I was a kid”, but I feel I have to say it.

I grew up in a suburb with plenty of trees, and our (very average) house had a shady, big backyard, which meant I loved going outside on a summer’s day and running around under the sprinkler. I don’t remember
summer holidays as being a time for staying indoors.

Obviously, kids nowadays are more likely to want to spend time on devices than playing outside. But that’s why it’s even more important to make it inviting for kids to put down the devices and walk out the door.

Dr Pfautsch says all the predictions point to “longer-lasting and more extreme” heatwaves.

But there are things that can be done to make suburban life cooler: smaller houses with larger backyards, cream-coloured roofs, more street trees, and “cool carparks”, such as ones that are shaded with solar panels on top.

“What’s definitely happening is that is getting hotter,” Dr Pfautsch says. “It will get hotter, so we just have to prepare better for it.”

Let’s face it – we’ve let down our kids by not tackling climate change. The very least we can do is think about the next generation when we’re planning suburbs and building houses. We don’t want Australian kids spending their entire summer holidays sitting inside in the air conditioning.

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