Report: Skyscrapers a Driving Factor of the Urban Heat Island Effect

As cities build upwards in an effort to create more housing and increase walkability, research shows that tall buildings intensify heat and contribute to increased carbon emissions.

2 minute read

August 19, 2021, 12:00 PM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Skinny Skyscraper

Tomasz Wozniak / Shutterstock

"A report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released on Monday looked at the relationship between housing, building structures, and broiling city blocks and found that deaths from heatwaves — like the one in Chicago [in 1995] — are not a coincidence," reports Adam Mahoney. The "report found that the single biggest contributor to amplifying heat and warming in cities is 'urban geometry,' the relationship between city layouts, building construction, and density," and that "[t]he main problem driving the so-called 'heat-island effect' is tall buildings." Because of this, "[u]rban centers can range as much as 22 degrees warmer than nearby rural areas."

[C]ities and states across the country — in Ohio, New York City, and back in Chicago, developers are building taller affordable housing, going up, not out, in an effort to create density, walkable neighborhoods where infrastructure costs are lower and jobs, stores, and homes are closer together. The trick is finding a solution that offers everyone safe and quality housing without overheating the planet.

John Mandyck, CEO of the Urban Green Council in New York City, says "[c]ities could create gardens in the sky, which have successfully offered natural cooling and improved air quality in cities like Chicago, as well as planting trees and bushes to shade sidewalks and streets." Other solutions include reflective roofing systems, which in New York City alone prevent "an estimated 2,500 tons of CO2 emissions every year."

While building up may mitigate the housing crisis, "it’s not even one percent of the solution to our environmental problems because it adds challenges even as it mitigates some," says Rick Cole, executive director of the Congress for New Urbanism. "More than 25 years after that first Cabrini tower came down, U.S. cities are much more equipped to tackle housing problems and the climate crisis, but action requires political willpower and individual sacrifices."

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