Researchers have known about and studied the urban heat island effect for quite some time. Since large cities began to emerge in the 19th century, it has been understood that various aspects of the urban environment lead to warmer temperatures than the surrounding countryside.
Researchers led by a group at Portland State University in Oregon have been utilizing a new way of studying the urban heat island effect. They have used citizen science volunteers in 24 cities around the world to map temperatures in the cities at ground level in great detail using mobile sensors attached to slow-moving vehicles. Previous studies have used data from satellite or stationary sensors. They have learned that the urban heat island effect is more complicated, more varied, and subtler than the earlier data indicated.
They found that there are six things that affect urban heat. Three are living — the volume of the tree canopy, the height of the tree canopy, and the ground level vegetation. Three are human-built — the volume of buildings, the difference in building heights, and the coloring of the buildings.
Buildings can have both negative and positive effects. Tall buildings that cast shade actually lower relative afternoon temperatures, while densely packed shorter buildings, like the big-box stores in suburban areas, lead to hotter afternoon temperatures. The studies show that increasing the difference in building heights in an area creates more air circulation, which has a cooling effect.
The study also showed that urban heat is a social justice issue. Lower-income neighborhoods largely barren of trees have considerably higher temperatures than more affluent, tree-shaded areas.
Such detailed research can be used to guide decisions in urban planning with regard to trees, building heights, and the color and type of surfaces in our urban spaces.
Photo, posted July 21, 2009, courtesy of Daniel Dionne via Flickr.