Inner city schools must face up to rising heat, fast

Children play at Reina Violant Elementary School in Barcelona, Spain September 29, 2017

Children play at Reina Violant Elementary School in Barcelona, Spain September 29, 2017. REUTERS/Juan Medina

Smart changes, such as more shade, nature and water, can help

Sophie Davies is a Barcelona-based journalist and the editor of Gas Outlook, a website about the global energy transition.

It’s a sweltering Sunday morning in Barcelona and a group of small children kick balls around a school playground bathed in blinding sunlight, the heat bouncing off the concrete floors and walls more ferociously than any ball.

I’m in the central, crowded El Born district with my 3-year-old son doing his weekly football practice. The school is tucked away in a warren of narrow medieval, cobblestone streets.

I try to keep him out of the sun as much as possible, which is difficult when there are pre-schoolers and footballs darting around – and limited space in the shade.

The organizer, a friendly American expat who has lived in Spain’s second largest city for 20 years, is handing out water bottles and promises she will try to change the time of the class to later in the day, to avoid the unforgiving midday heat.

The class finishes, my son is sapped from the heat, and I’m asking myself whether it’s safe to go back because children and heat can be a lethal combination.

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The threat from extreme heat – and particularly for disadvantaged children who live in urban areas – is mounting as fossil fuel production continues to ramp up in some parts of the world, accelerating the climate crisis. We have to act urgently to keep them safe. 

Heat can cause dehydration, heat exhaustion, heat cramps and heat stroke, the latter representing a medical emergency. 

Most worryingly, children suffer the effects of heat differently than adults due to differing body surface areas and body fat composition, among other factors. This can make it harder to detect.

Exposure to extreme heat increases the likelihood that a child will need to visit an emergency department for any reason in the summer, even on days when temperatures are not the highest, according to a pioneering US-based study published earlier this year.

A child born in the US today will experience 35 times more life-threatening extreme heat events than one born approximately 60 years ago, the same research showed.

Heat can also have a subtler but very troubling impact on children due to its effect on their ability to learn.

2020 study found that for every 1-degree Fahrenheit temperature increase, student learning drops by 1 percent. This same study found that heatwave days in the United States disproportionately affect students of colour, exposing the higher vulnerabilities of certain groups.

Luckily the school where football practice takes place is one of several chosen in Barcelona to participate in the aptly-named ‘Cool Schools’ project looking into how nature-based solutions in four European cities - Brussels, Rotterdam, Paris and Barcelona - can help to tackle climate change and its effect on children.

When we return a few weeks later, a brand new water spray tower has been installed, providing heat relief for both children and parents alike in this densely-built area of the city, where water features, parks and trees – all needed to cool city dwellers down – are scarce.

Not long after some sail canopies appear, providing well-needed shade. A living wall and some over-sized pot plants finish off the transformation. Football practice is a different experience now. 

And this is not the most significant makeover any Barcelona school has seen.

In the gritty Sants district, a few steps from Barcelona’s largest railway station, the Escola Jaume 1 has recently completed a major greening project, mainly self-financed, that has culminated in an innovative part-beach, part-adventure playground set-up. 

Large, landscaped sand dunes dotted with shrubby vegetation, a wicker house, swings, ladders and slides made out of rope and wood all provide a very natural setting in an unlikely location.

A previously concrete, noisy and harsh enclosure sandwiched between a station carpark, high-rise buildings and a warren of pavements, this play space is now verdant and calming.

Hours spent here now must be less stressful for the inner city kids that frequent it, including in the hottest summer months when many of Barcelona’s children continue to use their school facilities for the city’s long tradition of summer camps. 

Last month, a further 17 state nursery and primary schools in Barcelona initiated a 12-million-euro green transformation of their playgrounds, the third installation of a municipal greening project that began in 2019.

The Catalan capital has made an impressive start but – as one of the most densely-populated and hottest cities in Europe – it still has a long way to go in adapting its schools to climate change.

Across the globe, schools have been scrambling in recent months to address dangerously hot days. Severe heat poses an emergency for all school communities – especially in urban and deprived areas.

In the UK, children in some schools were allowed to finish early and wear clothing other than their uniforms.

In the hottest city in Japan, children were given specially-designed umbrellas made out of yellow fibreglass to prevent heatstroke.

In the United States and elsewhere, parents have started campaigning for more sail shades and better air conditioning, as well as school closures on the hottest days. 

Closing schools is disruptive and should be an option of last resort - children need to learn, and to maintain their daily routine.

What is needed is a sense of urgency and some creativity - taking our cue from Barcelona’s playground cooling projects and Japan’s umbrellas - to make future heatwaves less threatening for the youngest and most vulnerable in our societies.

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


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