Why we need to turn down the heat

SCORCHING SUMMERS: Western Sydney needs a strategy to help take the heat out of the built environment and change the way we cope.
SCORCHING SUMMERS: Western Sydney needs a strategy to help take the heat out of the built environment and change the way we cope.

Summers in Sydney normally roll out like a three-act play. Act 1 is late spring and early December, where there’s a rush to finish a year’s work, get ready for Christmas, shop, juggle the budget, send out cards, refresh the garden, get things set up.

It helps when the weather is as pleasant as it has been this spring.

Then in Act 2, Christmas and New Year take centre stage, when the joy of time with family pushes the limits of energy and emotion.

Excitement, tension, pleasure, disappointment, laughs, tears: Act 2 usually has them all.

Thank goodness, then, for Act 3, where things are reconciled or packed away, and there’s the remainder of January to refuel and revitalise.

This is when Sydney’s summer weather should deliver its magic.

But Act 3 last summer was a disaster. There was no carefree shorts-and-thongs Act 3.

We got belted by heat – and we dragged ourselves back to work exhausted.

On Wednesday January 11, the temperature in Parramatta reached 41°C. We didn’t know at the time, but a summer of hell had commenced. Friday the 13th in Parramatta hit 43°C, Saturday 37°C, Tuesday 41°C and Wednesday 39°C. Further west, it was hotter.

Then another heatwave brewed on Monday January 23. It lasted 10 days, and seemed like 20. By Monday, January 30, the thermometer in Parramatta hit 43°C. Then Tuesday was 42°C. We were gasping.

On Wednesday February 5, we copped a one-dayer, and Parramatta hit 42°C.

But it wasn’t over. Another week from hell started on Friday, February 11 when Parramatta reached 45°C.

On that day, Richmond reached an impossible 47°C, just short of the all-time Sydney record (when Richmond hit 47.8°C on January 14, 1939).

The next day - Saturday February 12 - Parramatta topped 43°C and the following week’s weather delivered temperatures into the high 30s, day after day.

We now know we were living through Sydney's hottest summer ever. Our city’s average daily maximum temperature was nearly 3°C higher than normal.

Outer Western Sydney weather stations recorded the all-time record for number of days exceeding 40°C. And we experienced the most nights ever for night-time temperature above 24°C.

When Sydney nearly ran out of water in 2006 during probably the worst drought since European settlement, Sydneysiders changed the way they used water. We stopped hosing concrete driveways and flooding lawns with fixed sprinklers.

After the hottest summer on record, the Western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils has commenced a campaign called Turn Down the Heat.

WSROC can’t change the weather, but it believes it can take the heat out of Western Sydney’s built environment and change the way we live on hot days.

Our region needs more tree cover, fewer heat absorbing roofs and concrete surfaces, and more pleasant outdoor places to enjoy summer evenings.

There is also the need for more informed ways to help vulnerable groups – the aged, the sick, pets – cope with hot days.

WSROC has assembled the three tiers of government, business and community groups, and our region’s best brains – from Western Sydney University, of course – to answer the question how can we turn down the heat?

WSROC has uncovered loads of initiatives in Western Sydney designed to address urban heat. But WSROC also recognises that much more needs to be done. Like the way we changed our water use in the mid-2000s, we need to get on board WSROC’s Turn Down the Heat campaign. Our days of summer should leave us refreshed, not exhausted.

  • Professor Phillip O’Neill is Director of Western Sydney University’s Centre for Western Sydney.