You don’t have to hate summertime

Feeling the heat: More roads, more concrete, more dark grey tiled roofs, and more stacks of apartments locked down with air-conditioners, all add more to the heat.
Feeling the heat: More roads, more concrete, more dark grey tiled roofs, and more stacks of apartments locked down with air-conditioners, all add more to the heat.

It’s one thing to bid good riddance to a very hot summer. But there are ways to make summer a season to look forward to, without resorting to long days inside air-conditioned living rooms or expeditions to air-conditioned shopping malls. Summertime in western Sydney should be a time for relaxation and pleasure.

We can start with making our homes perform better. Twelve months ago, we decided to upgrade our house so that it is cooler on hot days. Large houses like ours should be comfortable all year round without need for air-conditioning.

Our approach was to do 100 things that made a difference, no matter how small. This summer, we monitored our interventions. Rarely did the inside of the house top 24 degrees. Even during that three-day horror heatwave earlier this month, we stayed under 27 degrees. By early evening we were enjoying – yes, enjoying – outside life on our verandas and in our garden.

Our list of renovations included some heavier hitting: whirlybirds on the roof and thicker ceiling insulation. Then we added a vertical drop metal shutter on a large western window.

And there were smaller measures. Close fitting interior Holland blinds are cheap and effective. We swapped two bulky heat absorbing metal door and window frames for wooden varieties. Carpeted areas were stripped, leaving a cool concrete slab, which we covered in slate. We filled the verandas with large pots of flowers and herbs. A heat reflecting lawn area near the house was allowed to grow a little wilder. We refreshed the kitchen and interior walls with lighter colours. A fridge and a freezer and their ageing hot pump units were sent packing.

Throw in shorts, loose T-shirts, good books and a large jigsaw puzzle and our holidays were well spent.

Obviously not everyone has the house options we have, but everyone can benefit from better neighbourhood-scale adaptions to heat. There are lessons from overseas cities – like Madrid – for coping with hot days, where good urban design means people enjoy local parks and water bodies, outside-eateries, shady plazas and cool pathways.

There are lessons too from Canberra, of all places. We ventured to the national capital in the heat of January for a few days at the galleries. Each evening we walked to local high streets in Kingston and Manuka. The footpaths are well kept and covered by tree canopies  – not pruned to an inch of their lives by power-line maintenance crews. The shopping centres are clean with cared-for plant boxes and quality pavements meaning patrons don’t wrestle with unstable café tables and chairs. Sensible liquor laws enable families to enjoy good food and a civilised drink at reasonable prices. Fingers of parkland invite strollers and their ice creams down to the edge of Lake Burley Griffin – an artificial water body created by damming a small river, it is worth noting. In all, an otherwise hostile hot valley a long way from the coast has been turned into a pleasant place to be in the middle of summer. Heat is sucked out of these Canberra neighbourhoods by the effects of many small measures, most of them inexpensive.

Summer in Australia has been a time to be on the coast – and there has been plenty of beach to go around. Now, in a bigger growing Australia summer at the beach means congested day trips. We need to enjoy life beyond the beach, in the suburbs. There are easy gains away from the air-con switch.

The Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils (WSROC) is launching an important campaign this week. It is called Beat the Heat. Western Sydney didn’t perform well at all in coping with heat this summer. More roads, more concrete, more dark grey tiled roofs, and more stacks of apartments locked down with air-conditioners running flat out, all add more and more heat. Western Sydney needs to perform better.

  • Professor Phillip O'Neill is Director of the Centre for Western Sydney at Western Sydney University.