Extreme weather events like the brutal heatwave engulfing much of Europe in July 2022, highlight the urgent need to foster community resilience. Much like the mutual aid groups that sprung up all over the world in the midst of the global pandemic, bringing communities together to build enduring support networks to help everyone through extreme weather events, in all their forms, must be a vital strand of rapid transition.

It’s long been understood by people on the front line of dealing with natural disasters that community level work to strengthen preparedness, map vulnerabilities and have the most resilient livelihoods, is the best long term protection, as well as the best way to minimise damage from extremes in the short term. 

Community resilience is a term often thrown around with little grasp of its exact meaning or the practicalities of pursuing it. One definition sees community resilience as a measure of the sustained ability of a community to use available resources to respond to, withstand, and recover from adverse situations – from global pandemics, to the unfurling climate crisis. Such a broad definition means that the suite of solutions available to cultivate community resilience is also expansive. 

Initiatives can range from something as simple as local WhatsApp groups created to check in on the elderly and vulnerable members of the community during intense heat waves. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, it can be council-owned buildings that are set up as spaces that provide cooling during intense heat and warmth during the cold winter months. The latter will be particularly important this coming winter amid sky-high fossil fuel prices that are set to push many millions of households into energy poverty.

During the pandemic many communities came together to support each other. Photo by kuarmungadd (Licensed).

Community resilience is to the benefit of all, but during extreme heat events, focus falls on the most vulnerable groups, like the elderly. As we age, our bodies become less adept at beating the heat, and exposure to high temperatures can exacerbate existing health issues like high blood pressure. Of the 12,000 heat-related deaths that occur annually in the USA around 80% are people aged over 60. In the UK, the number of heat-related deaths amongst the elderly has doubled since 2000. As our world becomes hotter, and the population older, these issues will become more ubiquitous. 

In urban settings, cities must begin to develop cooling centre programmes, much like the one in New York, that allocate specific public buildings such as libraries, community centres and senior living complexes as being open to those needing to escape the heat. Evidence also suggests that these cooling centres should be located in the most deprived parts of the city, as the poorest communities are often the most vulnerable to extreme heat.

Analysis of satellite data and relative poverty figures across England, Scotland and Wales suggests that people living in deprived areas are more than twice as likely to live in areas significantly hotter than neighbouring areas – just as they are more likely to live in the more polluted areas with worse air quality. Analysis done by the BBC estimates that approximately six million people live in places at risk of experiencing extreme overheating during the summer months, with this figure set to climb as temperatures do. The connection between dual-threats of poverty and extreme heat mean that supplementary policies may be needed to improve the level of access to cooling centres, such as making public transport free, which many cities – and even entire countries – are starting to do.  

In the face of more frequent and severe climate impacts, informative and actionable public information is a resource that communities will increasingly be required to rely upon. Unfortunately, in places like the UK, significant parts of the media consistently downplay the risks posed by extreme heat through imagery of beach-goers and sunbathers, as well as making almost no mention of how extreme heat events and climate change interact. This is an important area identified where the media could do a lot better

Government policy could step in to fill this dangerous void. For instance, in an effort to accurately communicate the risks associated with extreme heat, the Spanish city of Seville has become the first in the world to name and classify heat waves five days in advance of their arrival in the same manner that authorities do with hurricanes or powerful storms. There are a variety of public information campaigns that are attempting to fill the dangerous void, such as the  Regional Community Resilience Group’s (RCRG) newsletter in Northern Ireland, which has been going since 2013. Bringing together local government, utility companies and community groups, the RCRG publishes a regular community newsletter, ‘Get Weather Ready’, to help communities prepare for and respond to extreme weather events, fostering community resilience in the process. The latest Summer 2022 newsletter is jam-packed with practical advice and guidance for communities trying to beat the heat. 

Rapid transition to beat the heat

In this series, the Rapid Transition Alliance will explore how housing, infrastructure and community resilience can be improved in the face of extreme heat and become part of the process of urgent decarbonisation and reducing energy demand, drawing on evidence-based hope from around the world.

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Resilience requires reflexivity – and communities must be given a say over how they prepare for, and adapt to, extreme heat events. 

At national level, responses to extreme events are typically coordinated across government by so-called ‘civil contingencies committees’. But these can be only weakly connected to the needs of actual communities, often leaving them to fend for themselves. There is huge potential to co-produce community heat responses and empower communities in adapting to climate change, harnessing local knowledge and ensuring that the most vulnerable – who are often omitted through large top-down policy processes – are protected. Proposals have been made for local, community driven equivalents of the civil contingency committee

Even just the process of co-producing can bring communities closer together, increasing the levels of trust between members of the community, forging enduring relationships and helping to navigate difficult socio-economic issues. These bonds could be vital for accelerating other areas of rapid transition. 

Community resilience can also further the growing demands for so-called ‘public luxuries’, which are in fact merely the parts of the public realm that make things better for everyone – all those things that can be accessed, and shared, by everyone but are increasingly being stripped from cities, towns and villages. Parks, libraries, playgrounds are just some of the examples of public ‘luxuries’, but in the face of more frequent and severe heat waves, the concept of public luxury could be extended to public swimming pools or lidos, artificial lakes and spray parks. Opening up opportunities through novel funding and planning mechanisms could help local communities design and deliver schemes aimed at beating the heat. 

As all communities – urban and rural, rich and poor – adjust to the climate we now inhabit, there is scope to stimulate broader transitions throughout society, from housing to infrastructure, to transport and the provision of public space. These transitions can unlock win-wins: more liveable streets where space is taken away from cars and given over to cooling trees will cut emissions and pollution. When changes like this occur, and communities feel the tangible benefits, they often don’t want to return to how things once were. Under the right conditions society, with all its structures and systems, can change as rapidly as the mercury in the thermometers is rising.