Building a climate-proof future

This article was originally published on 28th June on JCU’s Brighter website.

As climate change continues to wreak its path through tropical communities, architects and urban planners are combatting the potentially disastrous effects with innovative design solutions.

Dr. Silvia Tavares “designs cities with an eye on the climate”. A leading urban designer and senior lecturer at James Cook University, Dr. Tavares has a passion for creating places that foster connection and wellbeing, while being sustainable for the future.

“The climate impacts so many different things – how we function, how our lives are tailored, how efficient and sustainable we are – everything’s connected to this design around climate,” she said.

Dr. Tavares’ work is currently focussed on designing and adapting cities to deal with the continuing effects of climate change. Coastal cities like Cairns and Townsville are at risk of hazards like sea level rising and flooding.

“In Cairns, the airport and the main hospital are both by the sea, in high flood risk areas. Two essential places. If Cairns is cut off, and you need food to come in from somewhere else, and you don’t have an airport, you may be in trouble,” she said.

“People’s lives are going to be much more affected than they may think.”

Heatwaves in the tropics are also becoming more frequent and intense. A heatwave is defined by BoM as three days or more of high maximum and minimum temperatures that are unusual for that location.

“Where we used to have many short heatwaves in a year, now we might have few really long ones. The heat waves aren’t any less frequent, they’re just so long that you can’t fit 10 heatwaves in a year anymore.”

Part of the problem is that tropical cities are usually planned and designed the same way as they are in the south. This means that most houses are not designed to deal with the extreme heat of the tropics.

“We can’t just take the urban design knowledge from the south – it’s not the same reality. It’s not the same heat, it’s not the same weather patterns, the same flood risk.

Queenslander style houses
Traditional Queenslander style homes feature covered verandahs and window awnings to reduce heat from direct sunlight.


“People rely heavily on air conditioning up here. When a heatwave occurs, the energy system can shut down, and people might not know what to do. From 1900 to 2010, there have been 4,555 deaths in Australia related to heatwaves. That’s more than every single natural disaster summed up in the same period. But people don’t talk about it.”

One way to adapt urban design to the rising temperatures is by building ‘microclimates’ into the design of a city or suburb. A microclimate is the specific climate of a small region or area; Cairns, for example, has its own microclimate in relation to Queensland. Urban microclimates depend on a number of things, including the types of buildings in the area, types of materials used, or how much shade these buildings block or create sunlight.

“By designing streets and cities the right way, we can build a microclimate that’s easier to live in, because the buildings only have to respond to 35 degrees instead of 50,” said Dr. Tavares.

A further issue is how rapidly the tropics are urbanising.

“There’s a big influx of people coming from other regions to the tropics,” said Dr. Tavares. “The projection of growth for Cairns and Townsville is very large for the next few decades, so we need to think about how to accommodate for that growth before it’s too late. You can’t change the streets once they’ve been built.

JCU’s excellent resources and unique position make it an important part of the solution.

“JCU is a great exemplar of tropical urbanism and planning. There aren’t many universities located in the tropics with the resources JCU has. We have a unique opportunity to make a difference to this quickly-urbanising tropical region,” said Dr. Tavares.

But more importantly, JCU teaches students how to ‘think climate’.

“It’s climate-responsive design, instead of just tropical design. We teach a way of thinking about the climate. So, if you study here and then you want to go and live in Melbourne or Sydney, you can take that knowledge and contextualise it and apply it to other places.

“JCU’s location makes it an awesome place to study urban design. Climate is very visual and real here because of the extreme weather events we have – it makes the study more tangible.”

If you are interested in combining urban design and climate change like Dr. Tavares, consider studying a Bachelor of Planning at James Cook University.

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