New study reveals disparities in urban heat vulnerability and calls for targeted interventions

As global warming intensifies, urban heatwaves have become a major challenge for cities around the globe. New research, zooming in on the Basque Country’s capital city Vitoria-Gasteiz, reveals clear disparities in heat vulnerability, stressing the importance of targeted actions to mitigate environmental injustices linked to heat exposure.

In recent decades, there has been a notable increase in the frequency, intensity, and duration of heatwaves—a trend expected to further escalate due to accelerated global warming. Urban areas face heightened vulnerability due to the urban heat island (UHI) effect, where built-up environments trap and retain heat more than surrounding rural areas. The combined effects of heatwaves and UHI pose significant threats to the urban environment and human well-being, potentially leading to reduced productivity, impaired cognitive performance, and elevated risks to maternal and overall health.

In response to these growing challenges, the implementation of urban temperature regulation ecosystem services (TR-ES) through strategies such as urban green infrastructure (UGI) has become essential. UGI plays a crucial role in lowering land surface and air temperatures during hot periods by offering shade, minimizing the absorption of solar radiation on artificial surfaces, and encouraging evapotranspiration.

A recent study published in the journal Science of the Total Environment and led by the BC3 researcher Celina Aznárez has now shed light on environmental injustices in UGI distribution, with a focus on the mid-sized city Vitoria-Gasteiz. The research applied an integrated model that blends remote sensing with health and socio-demographic data, along with AI-powered tools such as Artificial Intelligence for Environment and Sustainability (ARIES) and geographic information systems. This approach enabled the mapping of the incongruences between the supply of, and demand for, TR-ES.

The study’s findings reveal concerning inequities in heat vulnerability, particularly in centrally located areas, and near industrial sites. “These areas are often characterized by heat-absorbing materials, compact structures, high population density, and sparse vegetation––factors that intensify local temperatures and contribute to UHI effects”, Aznárez explains. “Alarmingly, in these very areas, we noted a low availability of TR-ES, indicating unmet demand. Conversely, regions with ample green spaces, such as the green belt and large urban parks, tend to maintain a better balance between TR-ES supply and demand.”

Moreover, the study reveals disparities in heat vulnerability among different socio-demographic groups, finding that socio-economically disadvantaged communities, the elderly, and individuals with health issues are disproportionately affected by extreme heat. In light of this finding, Aznárez emphasizes the urgency of targeted interventions to address these disparities: “To effectively tackle the complex challenges of unequal urban heat risks, strategic interventions are needed, particularly focusing on vulnerable areas. This includes tailored adaptation strategies like greening initiatives and climate shelters. Understanding the social and health determinants contributing to these inequalities is crucial for effective urban adaptation plans aimed at mitigating urban heat while promoting equity and sustainability.”

This research underscores the value of nature-based interventions to mitigate the increased heat exposure that affects especially the more socio-economically disadvantaged communities not only in Vitoria-Gasteiz but in many other urban ecosystems as well. The study marks a significant step in comprehending the social and health determinants contributing to unequal urban heat vulnerability.

For a detailed exploration of the research findings, you can access the full paper here.

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María de Maeztu Excellence Unit 2023-2027 Ref. CEX2021-001201-M, funded by MCIN/AEI /10.13039/501100011033

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