Urban design and planning policy to mitigate heat-related health risks

A recent USC media release featured one of my PhD students’ work. Ryan McNeilly Smith has been working in the BASC Lab for just over one semester. He is investigating what urban planning and design policy for heat and urban climates may look like in Queensland.

In Ryan’s (LinkedIn) words:

A key element in the pursuit to make our cities and towns more resilient to urban and extreme heat is fit-for-purpose planning and urban design policy, to drive the right the types of built outcomes that mitigate heat. Without it, we can increasingly see (and feel) the impacts – hotter homes, unpleasant public spaces and increased risk of heat illnesses.

He has also recently been featured at the AECURN (Australasian Early Career Urban Research Network) Queensland website. You can read the full interview here.

The media release below has been first published at USC website (here).

* * *

As parts of Australia swelter through heatwaves this week after one of the hottest years on record, a University of the Sunshine Coast researcher says extreme heat needs the same research and policy focus as other natural hazards.

USC Doctoral student and town planner Ryan McNeilly Smith is investigating the role urban planning and design policy can play in reducing health risks in cities and towns from extreme heat that are exacerbated by “urban heat islands”.

This is a phenomenon that occurs when urban areas experience warmer temperatures than nearby rural areas due to the modified landscape, reduced vegetation coverage and absorption and radiation of heat by built structures.

“This is all within a context where we know extreme heat events are going to become more frequent, more intense and longer due to our changing climate,” said Mr McNeilly Smith, an urban planning and design consultant with experience in government and private sectors.

He said he identified the need to investigate natural hazards and disasters through an urban planning and design lens, after helping to coordinate recovery effects in disaster impacted Queensland communities.

“More people die in Australia from heatwaves than all other natural hazards combined, but while bushfires, tropical cyclones and floods are well considered in our planning systems for towns and cities, heat and heatwaves are not,” he said.

Research supervisor Senior Lecturer in Urban Design and Town Planning Dr Silvia Tavares said the urban heat island phenomenon had been researched for many decades.

“However, climate change and the increased frequency of heatwaves was making the understanding of, and response to, heat in built environments and public spaces increasingly important,” she said.

“Effective solutions to improve urban climate are rarely an urban planning priority, and this is why this study is so important: this knowledge has to be embedded into planning policy to be effective.”

The research through USC’s Bioclimatic and Sociotechnical Cities (BASC) Lab is using sociotechnical systems methods to investigate the issue, followed by microclimate computational simulations to test and visualise the heat impacts of current and proposed urban planning and design policy.

Key goals include increasing town planners’ awareness and knowledge of urban heat and developing pathways and recommendations to improve urban planning and design responses to extreme heat in Queensland.

The research is among a number of projects being conducted in USC’s high-tech BASC Lab, which uses a human-centred approach to enhance urban design and town planning with the aim of making towns and cities healthier and more comfortable.

Mr McNeilly Smith’s PhD research expands on his USC Honours project completed last year. The project is a finalist for a national award from the Planning Institute of Australia, to be announced in May, after it was named the best Tertiary Student Project in Queensland.

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