Orange trees shade public land in Seville, Spain

2 September 2010 – Human city-makers know less than ants when it comes to cooling and warming our cities.

When it knows (we don’t know how) the coming summer will be hot the meat ant gathers white and pale pebbles and carries them to cover the ground above its nest.  For cold winter time the ant replaces the pebbles with dark coloured pebbles.

In this way the little critters cool or warm their nest as the seasons vary the ground temperatures.

I’ve just seen ants carrying pebbles and doing this on a recent ABC video and explained by Auntie Fran of the D’harawal people, south of Sydney; it swept me away. (1)

And what do we humans do to cool down where we live, our cities?

Most of what we do increases the heat of our cities.

Red tape makers whack the private sector over the head with planning rules but ignore their own roads, schools, hospitals, freeways, train lines, harbour foreshores, esplanades and cover them in black tar, dark roofs and no trees.  Their own development drives up city temperatures by 6 to 10 degrees above what they would be if tree canopy, pale road and roof surfaces were kept.

A few trees are kept but canopy cover in Sydney, for example, is less than 5% compared to the 90% before we came here.

What’s to be done?

Presently, those folk ‘in charge’ aren’t really.  They have not the wit of ants and, even if they could grasp the abuse their works – well-intended though it may be – on our cities, lack the accountability and urgency to do anything to change their designs.  They answer to no one for the damage they do, the huge and avoidable air con costs their black roads foist on we victim citizens, the human deaths their oven-hot roads cause.

A circuit breaker is needed.

A long time ago in a galaxy far away, when I bought my first house in Gladstone, Qld, and planted some trees a worried-looking neighbour came out while I was putting them in.  “What are you putting those trees in for?”, he asked.

All around us the streets were buggered treeless forlorn grass verges, and stinking hot in summer.  Bob Dylan had my street in mind when he sang, “Desolation Row”.

“I thought it would be nice to get a bit of shade, give the birds a bit of tucker”, I replied.

“Mate”, he said, “trees are only good for dogs to piss on”.

“Well, I’ll just put these in and we’ll see how they go’, I said, seeking peace.

I didn’t venture that the dogs, whose numbers there far exceeded those of the trees, might be relieved to have few new trees to have a go at because it was unclear to me whether he had uppermost in mind the wellbeing of dogs or knocking my head off.

What’s the circuit breaker this story brings to mind?

Simply, that the time has come for some plain talking.

We need to tell our city-makers – local and state governments – to stop heating up our cities.  It’s time to say to them, “Trees are for cooling our cities, and to give us some tucker.  Don’t treat trees as something for dogs to piss on.’  They’d never use such language but the truth of their designs is that’s how they think and design and build.

Well, if the Reserve Bank can have a charter to keep inflation of our dollar economy within a measurable band of 2 to 5%, why not our city makers have something measurable, too?

Wouldn’t we like to see local and state governments obliged to so design roads, public infrastructure and facilities so that they will not increase summer temperatures at all, and certainly not by as much as the 6 to 8 degrees their works achieve in the current free for all they enjoy?

Let’s have a law this year that says: no rate increases, no increase in water or energy prices unless local and state governments first certify they have a plan to reduce city temperatures by at least 5 degrees by 2020.  And let’s require local and stage governments to be crafted so that those agencies who want our money from taxex must first protect our cities from increases in urban heat islands from any new works they carry out. Thus, the road agencies must be tied down with their expenditure so that all new roads will only be financed and built if the designers and proponents first certify the road will not increase city temperatures or add to the urban heat island.

Why not?

It’s our money, our taxes, our roads, our lives.

And the dogs will love it.

Michael Mobbs is a sustainability coach who works with developers, governments and communities to design and obtain approvals for houses, units and subdivisions. He is based in the inner Sydney suburb of Chippendale, where in 1996 he pioneered the conversion of his inner city terrace into a sustainable house, which has now been disconnected to mains water and sewerage and is powered by solar energy.

(1) The message stick, ABC TV, Fran Bodkin – the hidden truth

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