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Growing reliance on air conditioning could be hindering our quest to beat the heat, study finds

By Bridget Judd, Thursday January 24, 2019 - 19:15 EDT
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The study surveyed residents across Western Sydney to investigate how they cope with urban heat. - ABC

It's the middle of summer, the sun is stinging and you can feel your pits succumbing to the sweat.

You're stroppy, tired, and the prospect of anything that doesn't involve air conditioning has you just about ready to throw punches.

Sound familiar? Turns out, you're not alone.

A new report by researchers at Western Sydney University has found urban heat isn't just a pain — it's actually affecting our quality of life.

The study set out to investigate the effects of rising temperatures on the liveability of cities, and found an over-reliance on air conditioning and a lack of shade in outdoor areas could be making us sedentary, passive and lonely.

Through interviews with residents across Western Sydney, researchers discovered our capacity to cope with urban heat is, as you may have expected, at the mercy of the world around us.

Factors like housing design, housing tenure, public spaces and social networks can all help determine whether a toasty summer's day will have you jumping for joy, or scurrying inside for a long day of Netflix.

"One group of participants told us how their children in child care are not allowed to play outdoors after mid-morning due to the lack of shade," said Dr Louise Crabtree from Western Sydney University's Institute for Culture and Society.

"School-aged children come home straight after school, rather than riding their bikes, to 'just chill'."

The report found indoor shopping centres and fast-food restaurants were the only major reprieve for residents who didn't have access to or couldn't afford air conditioning, with soaring summer temperatures compromising liveability.

On the flipside, those accustomed to blasting the air con tended to lock themselves indoors during hot days.

"This can lead to social isolation with single-occupant dwellings on the rise in Australia," Dr Crabtree said.

So what's this all mean?

With our reliance on air conditioning now the primary method of keeping cool, researchers say outdoor infrastructure — like shade, shelter, public water and places to comfortably rest during summer — has fallen by the wayside.

That's posing a bit of a problem as the mercury rises and .

"The sobering reality we confront is an Australia where 50-degree summer days may become a normal event in Sydney by 2040, sooner in other metropolitan areas," Dr Crabtree said.

"Reliance on air conditioning increases the demand for fossil-fuel-derived energy, which is contributing significantly to global warming. People are being driven indoors to individualised social spaces, and household energy bills soar.

"This also has implications for households that either can't install air conditioners or afford to run them."

The report recommends investing in alternative ways to beat the heat — like public swimming pools, community gardens and a community weather-preparedness plan.

It's a call to action already being heeded by councils both across Western Sydney and elsewhere in Australia.

From spaced-out streets and reflective colours, to heat sensors and water features, cities are pioneering their own ways to reduce urban "heat islands" — metropolitan areas significantly warmer than surrounding areas due to human activity.

Researchers now hope governments will listen to the voices of residents in designing adaptive environments, with our growing reliance on air conditioning leading to "a perceived need for less publicly accessible infrastructure, which then exacerbates the problem", Dr Crabtree said.


© ABC 2019

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