Preparing for a heating future in 'the Sunshine State'


Sunshine over Brisbane city.

When you think Queensland, you think heat. It’s right there in the nickname ‘The Sunshine State’.

Yet one of the curiosities of the state is that minimal governance exists to ensure Queensland homes, towns and cities protect occupants from threats posed by heat.

Planning with purpose

“Despite heatwaves causing more than half of all deaths associated with natural hazards in Australia, they don’t have the same vivid impact as floods, bushfires and cyclones,” says Silvia Tavares of the University of the Sunshine Coast's Bioclimatic and Sociotechnical Cities (BASC) Lab.

“This can mean that urban heat and heatwave risks are not well considered in planning practice or policymaking to the degree that they should be.

“Here in Queensland our planning regulations require both local councils and developers to avoid or mitigate risks with hazards such as bushfire, flooding and storm tide inundation, while building regulations also require mitigation of cyclones and earthquakes.

“The opportunity exists to build in equivalent regulations for urban heat mitigation and heatwaves.

“As the climate warms and heatwaves become more frequent and intense, our planning and building regulations need to be fit-for-purpose for the risks we face now and into the future.”

Dr Silvia Tavares

Dr Silvia Tavares, Senior Lecturer, Urban Design and Town Planning.

Dr Silvia Tavares, Senior Lecturer, Urban Design and Town Planning.

Of course, constructing abodes to suit the Queensland environment is not a novel concept.

As urban design PhD candidate Ryan McNeilly Smith, who is studying policy making around heatwaves, identifies, the region’s First Nations people have been doing it for tens-of-thousands of years.

Since colonial settlement, there have also been plenty of examples of intelligent design to counter the climate, including the state’s iconic Queenslander homes.

However, the problem is this has been at the discretion of architects, builders and homeowners, not governed at a higher level.

While many companies counteract urban heat to make their developments as attractive as possible, it is not always a primary consideration.

“Urban places are centres for a large volume of human activity, generating a lot of heat and energy,” Ryan says.

“When you combine this with limited green spaces, poor air circulation, concrete and other materials which absorb sunlight, then you’re emitting significant heat into the public realm.

“Industrial settings and critical infrastructure can also be large generators of heat, and you need innovative solutions which allow these precincts to maintain their serviceability, while providing cooling.

“For example, industrial parks will often have wide roadways to accommodate trucks and large vehicles, but these roads emit intense heat after daily exposure to the sun. What’s the solution?

“We need to front-load considerations of urban heat and heatwaves into town planning processes, the same way we do for other natural climate impacts.

“When a town is being created, local councils need to embed avoidance and mitigation of heating into the town plan, creating outcomes that developers are required to meet.”

Health in high heat

Not-for-profit advocacy group Sweltering Cities works with communities in Australia’s hottest suburbs to achieve safer, more liveable, equitable and sustainable precincts.

Their 2022 Summer Survey found that 66.8 per cent of people reported feeling unwell on hot days or during heatwaves, and that one-in-eight respondents sought medical care due to heat-related issues.

Displaying the social divides caused by urban heat stress, people who rented were shown to be three times more likely to leave their homes on hot days in order to cool down, while 60 per cent of people didn’t turn on air-conditioning due to financial concerns.

Ryan McNeilly Smith’s UniSC supervisor Dr Silvia Tavares shares his passion for understanding and reducing the negative impacts of excessive heat on residences.

She has first-hand experience of some of the most diverse climates in the world, moving from one of Brazil’s coldest cities, Porto Alegre, to one of its hottest cities, Palmas (where temperatures of 51C have been recorded) early in her career.

She has also lived in Germany, New Zealand’s snowy South Island and the intense humidity of Cairns, Australia.

“A well-designed city really is an artform,” Dr Tavares says.

“Australia is playing catch-up when it comes to urban heat mitigation, as compared to some places in Europe.

“In 2003 nations like France, Germany, the Netherlands and UK experienced a heatwave that was responsible for more than 70,000 deaths, so it became front-of-mind for them.

“It’s human nature to respond to a crisis, and heat stress is very hard to gauge until the death toll rises.

“Somebody might present at hospital with heart failure or another condition brought on by heat, but heat itself it’s not always identified as a reason.”

The challenges we face

Dr Tavares has in interest in the “cultural baggage” that comes with approaches to urban planning around the world and how culture may influence people’s adaptation to climate.

Queenslanders outwardly identify as people who like to spend time in the sun, relish the heat, like to own houses on a large plot of land, and don’t always have a high opinion of multi-story dwellings.

Although a huge part of Dr Tavares’ work is about informing decision-makers at a policy level, there is also a need to influence the general population to think differently.

Preserving and planting new vegetation is crucial, as is combating the thermal effects and resource consumption caused by ever-expanding urban footprints.

“Most of the time, urban sprawl is caused by people looking to escape urban sprawl’,” Dr Tavares says.

“We tend to allow too many greenfield developments (development of previously unoccupied land) in Queensland.

“If you look at how to plan a compact, viable, walkable city, you have to think long-term and have firm regulations.

“Portland in the USA is now famed for being this desirable, leafy, close-knit community and that stems back to them implementing development regulations and constraints in the 1970s.

“Australians very much like to have one-story houses that take all the sun, occupy the maximum allowable area on their land, then gardens become an afterthought in many ways.

“Some have a real resistance to trees because they think they might spoil the view, drop too many leaves, or require too much maintenance, and at the same time, people don’t like shade from other properties falling over them.

“We need to value trees, value vegetation in general, value shade.”

Dr Nicholas Stevens, Senior Lecturer, Urban Design and Town Planning.

Dr Nicholas Stevens, Senior Lecturer, Urban Design and Town Planning.

Dr Silvia Tavares, Senior Lecturer, Urban Design and Town Planning.

Dr Silvia Tavares, Senior Lecturer, Urban Design and Town Planning.

Dr Greg Mews, Lecturer in Urban Design and Town Planning.

Dr Greg Mews, Lecturer in Urban Design and Town Planning.

UniSC's BASC Lab focuses on the complexities related to all these issues together – urban design, planning, heat, urban vegetation, health and so forth.

The team takes a human-centred approach and works alongside industry, government and community to achieve optimum outcomes for now and into the future.