Renewable Cities

To make communities safe during heat domes, we need consensus rather than tools of coercion

July 11, 2024
Photo by: Ben Nelms/CBC

In June, residents in central and eastern Canada faced a heat dome. From B.C., we watched the headlines with grave concern.

Now it’s our turn to face the heat warnings throughout B.C. and Alberta.

Three years ago, we experienced a deadly heat dome throughout B.C. that brought up deep feelings of fear and concern, especially for children, older adults and physically vulnerable friends and family. We called them, ensured they had a place to cool, and we worried about how they were coping with the extreme heat.

If we were lucky, we knew our neighbours well enough to check in, offer help, or trust them enough to receive their help when offered.

These connections with loved ones and neighbours were crucial for preventing heat-related deaths during extreme weather events. As directors of three projects looking at climate, housing and land use, and social wellbeing, we find ourselves reflecting on the interwoven crises we face in an era of rising temperatures.

Canadian Census data reveals that our nation has an aging population and an increasing number of one-person households. This means there is a growing proportion of B.C.’s population who are more vulnerable to extreme heat. The British Columbia coroners service's 2022 report identified that most heat-related deaths included older, socially-isolated people as well as people in socially or materially deprived neighbourhoods, without adequate cooling systems and with specific chronic diseases.

Many homes in B.C. are not technically equipped to handle extreme heat events, as they lack cooling systems. Heat risks are heightened in cities, where the "urban heat island" effect of heat trapped in concrete and buildings leads to higher temperatures.

Photo by: Ben Nelms/CBC

Social isolation is also a major risk factor. Mitigating loneliness and isolation by building social and neighbourly connections will play an increasingly important role in climate resilience.

As we build new homes to accommodate our growing population, we must address vulnerabilities of social isolation, an aging population and climate change. These interconnected challenges form a polycrisis, a complex web of problems that reinforce and amplify each other. To tackle these issues effectively, save money and protect our communities, we need a multi-solving approach.

How can we ensure homes and neighbourhoods effectively mitigate risks? 

New housing developments and retrofits should incorporate plans for both social and climate resiliency, benefiting residents of all incomes, abilities and ages.

  • Improving our housing: We need to weatherize existing homes by improving or installing cooling systems (including passive cooling techniques such as shading, ventilation and reflective roofing materials) to keep safe indoor temperatures. New homes built with low embodied carbon material such as prefabricated mass timber can be designed for resilience and high performance in a rapidly changing climate.
  • Preparing and building social resilience as a community: Individual household emergency preparedness is important but often insufficient. A neighbour-to-neighbour, block or building-level approach like Building Resilient Neighbourhoods’ Connect & Prepare program can promote well-being, health and climate resiliency. Hey Neighbour Collective offers practice guides to strengthen social connections in existing multi-unit buildings, and collaborates with Happy Cities, Simon Fraser University and others to convene cross-sector talks with planners and housing experts to promote best practices in age-friendly, "sociable" designs for new housing.
  • Enhancing low carbon resilience: The low carbon resilience framework from the SFU Action on Climate Team includes nature-based solutions. Urban tree canopy and rain gardens, for example, can reduce the impacts of extreme heat and flooding, sequester carbon, improve water and air quality, and improve health and well-being. Nature-based solutions can efficiently and cost-effectively multi-solve a range of challenges.
  • Integrating homes into existing communities: Land use planning needs to ensure new construction is focused in areas with lower exposure to hazards, avoiding wildfire-prone urban sprawl. SFU Renewable Cities accessible, affordable housing options on under-used land located near jobs, transit, local businesses and schools to enhance livability and neighbourly connections.

At the SFU Morris J Wosk Centre for Dialogue, we know that transformation does not automatically happen with discovery of new technical solutions, which is why we emphasize practical, grounded conversations.

This means taking time to listen to the whole system — particularly the margins — and work towards consensus, rather than using tools of coercion and domination.

Building equitable, low carbon, resilient and socially connected communities can ensure a safer and healthier future.

Leanne Sawatzky is Interim executive director of SFU Renewable Cities, Michelle Hoar is project director of Hey Neighbour Collective and Lauren Vincent is associate director of the SFU Action on Climate Team.