Eleni Myrivili, advisor and senior fellow for resilience at the Atlantic Council Arsht-Rockefeller Resilience Center and advisor to the Mayor of Athens, Europe’s first chief heat officer

Athens can get mighty hot in summer. So can parts of Australia, especially Western Sydney. Here’s how Athens’ chief heat officer deals with the challenges of keeping her city cool.

Extreme heat is an increasingly urgent global phenomenon, fanning the literal flames of bushfires, droughts and heat waves. One study found that every year extreme heat kills 5 million people worldwide. Here in Australia, heat is our deadliest natural hazard.

Athens is no exception. A 2019 analysis by Newcastle University Polytechnic School in the UK ranked Athens as the European city facing the greatest impact from heat waves.

In the summer of 2021, Greece experienced the worst heatwave in decades, causing temperatures to soar to 46.3 degrees Celsius and sparking over 140 wildfires. Greece recorded over 2300 excess deaths (excluding deaths from COVID-19) between late July and mid-August compared with the last five years, including around 1400 excess deaths in the first week of August alone.

It’s getting so bad that officials in Greece are thinking of naming and ranking heatwaves – just like they already do for storms and cyclones.

This is why former deputy mayor of Athens Eleni Myrivili, advisor and senior fellow for resilience at the Atlantic Council Arsht-Rockefeller Resilience Center and advisor to the Mayor of Athens, is Europe’s first chief heat officer.

Last week, Ms Myrivili and Blacktown City Council chief executive officer, Kerry Robinson, sat down to talk about global approaches to tackling urban heat, in an online event organised by the Committee for Sydney.

Athens is part of the 100 Resilient Cities program, which aims to improve sustainability and support citizen wellbeing.

During the next decades, around the middle of the century, Athens expects “15 to 20 extra days of heatwaves… and a decrease of rainfall of about 12% percent,” Ms Myrivili told the audience.

Athens’ chief heat officer plans to ban black roofs and re-green urban areas to increase awareness of the dangers of the “silent killer” that is heatwaves.

As the frequency and duration of heat waves increases, the Urban Heat Island effect (UHI) also increases. Athens, a city whose population exploded in the past century, experiences increased UHI caused by dense concrete buildings and the loss of parks and gardens in the city.

Socioeconomic distribution of the population has a significant effect on UHI. Vulnerable populations in lower-income socioeconomic urban areas usually experience higher UHI, due to a lack of green spaces and naturally cooling bodies of water.

Mr Robinson spoke about similar challenges being faced by areas of Western Sydney.

So, what is the solution?

The Athens Climate Change Adaptation Plan is a strategy of 29 actions to improve Athens’ response to rising temperatures.

Ms Myrivili said the plan is to increase awareness of the dangers of the “silent killer” that is heatwaves, and create a comprehensive plan to re-green urban areas. She also plans to restore the ancient 25-kilometre Hadrian Aqueduct to redistribute water flow and plant trees across Athens.

Mr Robinson also called for Sydney’s Department of Planning to prioritise greening outdoor spaces, reduce black roofs, and lower population density in new developments.

Ms Myrivili praised the strategy from Sydney’s energy providers to “take capacity away from the industrial sector and move it to the residential sector” during heat waves to prevent blackouts. In 2017, energy provider AGL shut down the Tomago Aluminium Smelter for days to reduce the load during a heatwave.

Athens’ chief heat officer plans to ban black roofs and re-green urban areas to increase awareness of the dangers of the “silent killer” that is heatwaves

Ms Myrivili plans to ban black roofs in Athens and to encourage car sharing in a city where she says outdoor space often gets “co-opted” for cars. Among the challenges though is government fragmentation that creates barriers to passing legislation and implementing an Athens greening strategy.

Another element of Sydney’s strategy that Ms Myrivili liked was the work of Resilient Sydney in creating a set of strategies such as the Cool Suburbs Tool collaboration with WSROC, and to create a “common language, common discourse, and a common sense of goals and vision for the Greater Sydney Area”.

“I believe that it is possible…” she stated. “I think [it] is just a matter of somebody really putting in the effort and putting in the legwork to pull everybody together.”

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