Cool commons in ‘hot Sydney’

“The transition to a cooler city requires us to think across scales, but in our view, the resident’s perspective must be considered.” Abby Mellick Lopes discusses why the local knowledge and experience of residents living in Sydney’s ‘hot spots’ need to be included in policy and planning approaches that aim to mitigate Sydney’s burgeoning urban heat issues.

'On Glenmore Loch, Glenmore Park.' Photograph by Helen Armstrong.

What does it mean to live well in our cities as it gets hotter? The prospect of 50 degree days before mid-century in Sydney and Melbourne raises questions about the sorts of cities we want to live in and how we will live in them in the future. We tend to think of the city of the future from a bird’s-eye point of view, looking down on the buildings and infrastructure, but missing the people. Climate change requires us to think of the city’s future from the lived perspective of its residents. As Roelvink (2016) puts it, it’s an opportunity to learn to be affected by the warmer world to come and that is also already here. During summer, climate change becomes THE conversation about Australian cities as what we feel becomes how we anticipate a warmer world, and what we might do to keep cool.

The transition to a cooler city requires us to think across scales, but in our view, the resident’s perspective must be considered. There is no doubt that air temperatures in Western Sydney during the summer months often reach temperatures that are several degrees hotter than the coastal suburbs, due to its geographical location. Widely circulated heat maps developed as part of the 202020 Vision project, plainly show that areas in Western Sydney’s socioeconomically disadvantaged areas coincide with the hottest ground temperatures and the fewest shade-providing trees, a problem likely to grow worse as grass and bushland rapidly become a sea of dark-tiled roofs. Such images make their way into news stories each summer and provide a powerful picture of crisis and change, but also reinforce a dichotomy where advantage/disadvantage, creativity/limited capacity is divided along the familiar east/west line.

Research currently underway at Western Sydney University demonstrates that Western Sydney is far from a homogeneous zone of disadvantage, and that urban heat demands a closer look, no matter where one might live.

Cooling the Commons was a pilot study that is now informing a larger research project on creating cool common spaces in densifying urban environments. We found that while there is a lot going on to adapt our cities to better cope with urban heat, from green infrastructure to building design, there’s less research on the experience of keeping cool, or that “make[s] space for individual agency” (Bell et al 2014). Our pilot study asked people from groups deemed most vulnerable to heat stress: how do you cope with the heat in summer?

A group of senior residents in St Marys confounded stereotypes of vulnerability. These people had a high degree of practical knowledge, developing ‘workarounds’ for keeping cool in their often thermally poor houses, and using available materials and skills learned from their parents. Some of these involved the recall of what Strengers and Maller (2017) call ‘practice memories’, involving very low-tech solutions, like placing the baby under the table with a wet sheet over the top, or freezing water in cake tins and setting up a fan to blow air over it. However, this group were also adept at DIY modifications, such as installing heat-removing ‘whirlybirds’ on their rooftops, and had a lot to say about younger generations not developing the practical knowledge that was simply an expectation when they were growing up. This group was hyper-aware of the costs associated with fans and air-conditioning, and this mindfulness was a source of pride. They were critical of the ‘thermal indulgence’ (Strengers & Maller 2017) encouraged by air conditioning, and were concerned about how it hastens a decline in knowledges about other ways to manage thermal comfort.

We also spoke to a group of Aboriginal mothers living in social housing who were far more aggressively constrained by their material environment, partly as they were not in a position to make such modifications. These houses exacerbated hot conditions, with no insulation, fans or passive cooling features. How did these women cope with the heat? Some by remaining as still as possible, even when the weather indoors was worse than that outside. We heard about kids in childcare not allowed to play outdoors after mid-morning due to the lack of shade. New research confirms that surfaces common to childcare centres and playgrounds such as ‘softfall’ and ‘astroturf’ can reach temperatures several times hotter than the reported air temperature. Rather than ride their bikes, these women’s school-aged kids came straight home after school to in their words, ‘just chill’. These issues are exacerbated by the lack of public transport infrastructure to enable people to easily get to public swimming pools in Penrith or St Marys.

While these groups had very different experiences, they shared aspirations for a cooler city with more comfortable and accessible spaces of mobility and sociality. Trees were seen as an important factor in this, but people wanted a say in what trees go where. Equally, ‘assembly buildings’, including shopping centres, pools and community centres, were seen as critical social infrastructure, where equitable cooling could be accessed. There was a strong desire to share knowledge and ideas, but this was tempered with experiences of not feeling listened to or included.

The communities we spoke to had strong criticisms of the new developments springing up all around them. As one elderly carer remarked:

“All this multi-development – high density units – we are all going to be in a hot dome – the heat is just going to sit on top of us!! …we need housing but they are not thinking about how to do it.”

Our pilot research suggested a new approach is needed to codesigning cool cities where local knowledges and aspirations for cool commons form an integral part of the picture. This approach is particularly important as formal policy approaches have struggled to gain traction among communities and residents. Grand visions of future (eco)cities need to be met with more intimate, human-scale proposals, such as those shared with us by residents in western Sydney’s ‘hot spots’. After all, this is the scale at which any climate change adaptation will matter.


Bell, S.L., Phoenix, C., Lovell, R., Wheelier, B. (2014). Green space, health and wellbeing: making space for individual agency. Health & Place, 30(1), 287-292.
Roelvink, G. (2016). Building Dignified Worlds: Geographies of Collective Action. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Strengers, Y. and Maller, C. (2017). Adapting to ‘extreme’ weather: mobile practice memories of keeping warm and cool as a climate change adaptation strategy. Environment and Planning A, 49(6), 1432-1450. 

Abby Mellick Lopes is a Senior Lecturer in design and an interdisciplinary researcher at the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University. Abby’s research focuses on the relationship between design and social arrangements to support the transition to more sustainable cultures and economies, tackling issues such as civic trust in drinking water, food economies, the impact of development trends on urban heat and cultures of repair. She collaborates with a wide range of academic, industry and government partners and has published extensively on sustainable design and transdisciplinarity. The research reported in this blogpost was conducted by a team including Professor Katherine Gibson, Professor Helen Armstrong and Dr Louise Crabtree at the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney. The author would also like to thank research colleagues Stephen Healy, Louise Crabtree and Emma Power for their editorial input into this blogpost.

Abby Mellick Lopes will continue this conversation on Monday 7 May, 2018, when she joins the SEI for ‘Spatial inequality and Australian cities in a warming world‘. This public lecture in collaboration with Sydney Ideas will explore issues of urban spatial inequality. For more details, and to register, click here.

‘Spatial inequality and Australian cities in a warming world is the first lecture in the ‘Living in a Warming World’ lecture series, convened by Dr Frances Flanagan, Professor Christopher Wright. For more information on the series, click here.