Beating the city heat: A social science study in urban Asia

Climate change has sent global temperatures rising with an alarming number of extreme heat incidents putting the lives of urban dwellers in Asian cities at risk. Experts predict that heat will be among the most serious global health crises after the current pandemic. In spite of this, little has been written on the history or social and cultural engagement with heat in Asia, with scant historical temperature data collected.

Now, a team of researchers led by Associate Professor Gregory Clancey, Leader of the Science, Technology, and Society Cluster at NUS Asia Research Institute (ARI), has launched a project titled ‘Heat in Urban Asia’ to study temperature changes, methods of heat alleviation, as well as the social, economic and health impacts of hazardous heat in the four cities of Singapore, Hong Kong, Delhi and Wuhan. This is the first and arguably the most ambitious effort to understand urban heat from a humanities and social science perspective, not only in Asia, but worldwide.

City heat – a hitherto underdeveloped topic in social science

The interdisciplinary project which started in July 2019 involves scholars from a range of social and physical science backgrounds, such as historians, as well as social and natural scientists. Research will centre on the following questions: (1) How, where, and to what degree have heat islands developed in Singapore and comparable Asian cities from the pre-colonial period to the present, and what is the trajectory of change?; and (2) How have different cultural, social, technical, design and planning practices been relieved or exacerbated by urban heat?

The project takes a three-pronged approach. The first examines Urban Heat Island Effect and the influence of city planning, design and infrastructure building on the phenomenon’s escalation or mitigation. Researchers will collect a comprehensive record of temperatures in the targeted cities, including missing historical temperature data. Importantly, this will allow experts to track heat over a longer time period than is currently available and for detailed urban heat comparisons between urban, peri-urban and control sites.

The second part addresses the lived experiences of heat in urban Asia, with researchers looking at everyday practices of living with heat vis-à-vis changes to the design and planning of the built environment, and how such practices interact with other forms of material culture and cultural practices (e.g., consuming cold drinks are a common way to reduce heat). Political and social processes that have shaped our exposure to heat, and ways in which people keep cool using low-energy, daily alternatives to current technologies will also be studied.

The final component focuses on collating records on extreme heat events including heatwaves, studying their social, health and economic consequences and examining the evolving frequency and intensity of the growing environmental hazard.

Contributions to urban heat research

Assoc Prof Gregory Clancey, who is also a historian from NUS Arts and Social Sciences, shared, “We are heading toward a hotter future, but aren’t very prepared for that culturally. Understanding how we have adapted to heat in the past may give us more confidence, and some ideas, about how to deal with it in the current century.”

Co-Principal Investigator Assoc Prof Chang Jiat Hwee from the Department of Architecture at NUS Design and Environment, added, “Urban heat is essentially a socio-spatial problem so it is important to understand the problem from a built environmental perspective.”

To help the public learn about how urbanisation patterns can exacerbate heat, the team plans to create an open-access interactive web platform containing oral history testimonies, archival documents, historic maps, images and videos, in collaboration with NUS Libraries. To be launched in July, it will also serve as an educational resource for the general public and students to learn about the history of Singapore and other cities in novel ways.

An international conference on ‘Heat in Urban Asia: Past, Present and Future’ was also organised from 21 to 23 April, which convened experts from around the world for an in-depth discussion and policy recommendations on the pressing issue.

Aside from Assoc Profs Clancey and Chang, lending her expertise to the project is Dr Yoonhee Jung, ARI Postdoctoral Fellow and research project manager. The team also includes scholars from other local institutes of higher learning as well as collaborators from overseas universities such as Hong Kong University and Durham University.