Americans are in for another scorching hot summer. For those in the Northeast, the heat waves this past weekend were only a hint of what’s coming, as temperatures in the coming months are expected to rise above average in most states—for the 46th year in a row.
The good news is that urban planning can help.
As cities around the world continue to heat up, climate shelters are bound to become an urban necessity—as important as public restrooms. To keep buildings cool and people safe, cities have already been building parks, planting trees, and painting rooftops white to reflect the sunlight. Barcelona is doing some of that, but it’s also leveraging its existing infrastructure.
Since 2020, the city has been setting up a network of climate shelters. The mix of existing municipal facilities and public spaces have been marked with a sign at the entrance, pinned on an online map, and made available to residents who need to stay cool during high temperatures. In 2021, the city more than doubled the number of its climate shelters from 70 to 163.
It’s a simple idea with momentous consequences. This past weekend alone, more than 38 million Americans were under a heat advisory. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more than 11,000 Americans have died from heat-related causes since 1979—and a separate 2021 study shows that heat-related deaths are on the rise.
In Spain, temperatures last year hit a record 117 degrees Fahrenheit. “Cities need to be prepared for these impacts, as they significantly affect people’s health and well-being,” says Irma Ventayol, a sustainability coordinator at the Barcelona City Council, who is also in charge of the climate shelter network.
Climate change has a disproportionate impact on vulnerable populations, so Barcelona’s shelters are particularly useful in lower-income neighborhoods but also for the elderly and people experiencing homelessness who may not have access to ventilated or air-conditioned spaces. (About 58% of homes in Barcelona have air-conditioning, and only one in three homes have it across the country.)
Barcelona’s shelters are in schools, museums, libraries, and parks. Each location is open to the public from June 15 to September 15. However, Ventayol notes that they’re available only while the building is open. (This inevitably limits their impact, but it’s usually hottest around 3 p.m., and most buildings are likely to be open for at least a few hours after that.)
Most of these buildings were already fit to be climate shelters; all the city had to do was designate them as such. But it did help retrofit 11 schools around the city. These include cooling fountains, gardens and green walls, awnings, solar shading, and new roofs for better ventilation. (While the schools themselves aren’t open during summer months, the courtyards will be.)
Thanks to a 4 million euro EU grant and another 1 million euros from the city (about $5.3 million total), Barcelona also planted 74 trees and reclaimed almost 11,000 square feet of pavement that was turned into green space.
A project of this scale can work only if each location stays open throughout the day, but it also has to be communicated clearly: If residents can’t find the shelters or don’t know they exist in the first place, the initiative won’t serve many people. An online map features interactive tools that let you filter locations by district, but it’s not the most user-friendly—and it works only for those with access to a smartphone. So Ventayol’s team is working on a communication and outreach campaign that will launch in June and include brochures to be distributed “at strategic points” in the city.
To ensure that the network is equally accessible to everyone, the city also worked with Barcelona Regional, a public infrastructure agency. Ventayol says the agency helped collect a host of information about various potential shelters and then analyzed the qualifying locations on a map to ensure they were spread out equitably.
As a result, almost 90% of the population now lives within a 10-minute walk of a climate shelter (though on a Sunday in August, when many facilities are closed, Ventayol says the number is closer to 74%). By 2030, the city wants the entire population to be within a five-minute walk of a designated climate shelter.
For years, cities and organizations around the world have been working on closing the park equity gap by building and advocating for parks that are accessible to everyone, including people of color. As temperatures continue to rise due to climate change—with longer, stronger, and more frequent heat waves—perhaps climate shelters should be the next frontier.