Too hot to handle: Why South Africa’s cities need more trees

Posted by David Henning on 27 July 2021

‘The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now,’ a Chinese proverb goes. Trees play a vital role in ecosystems. Not only are they carbon banks that produce essential oxygen that we need to breathe, but they play such an intricate role that demonstrates the whole balance of nature.

And now with the noticeable effects of climate change, and even moderate temperature regions on the globe having record-breaking summers, the argument for greening urban landscapes has never been more pertinent.

Sea Point Swimming pavilion on a warm summer’s day. Amenities such as this will become more crowded with rising urban temperatures.

Take the recent heatwave in North America, where bears took a dip in a residential swimming pool to cool down. The city of Portland in the USA had to provide cooling areas where residents could go cool down from the heat.


The global south, and South Africa in particular, are not privy to this phenomenon. The memories of an impending day zero during the drought are still prominent in the minds of many Capetonians and many households throughout the country converted their homes to be water smart with rain collection tanks and succulent gardens.

The municipality of Gqeberha had only recently escaped a drought following the generous rainfall this winter. The effects of high temperatures and extreme weather events that are being reported in North America, and the recent extreme rainfall in Europe and China are strikingly familiar.

In the midst of the drought, Cape Town was used to seeing notices such as this. Picture: Flickr Commons

Exposure to extreme heat more than doubled in 13 000 cities between 1983 and 2016. Jacobadad in Pakistan and Ras Al Khaimah in the UAE have already passed the limits of the body’s survival ability on its hottest and most humid days. Meanwhile, South Africa’s temperatures are expected to rise at twice the global rate.

Meryl Jagarnath, a researcher at the University of Cape Town’s environmental health division recently contributed to a study on heat tolerance in the Durban metropolitan area, arguing that increased exposure to heat has serious repercussions.

‘Excess high temperature is linked to increased risks of mortality, morbidity, child undernourishment, respiratory illness and infectious diseases impacting on healthcare, employment and the economy and is one of the most important indicators for assessing the impacts of climate change on society,’ Jagarnath said.

The research demonstrated that neglected areas in Durban with little infrastructure development and public services have little adaptive capacity to deal with increased temperatures. She argues that addressing climate change is inextricably linked with addressing socio-economic issues, where vulnerable groups are most at risk of heat exposure. Areas that lack access to public infrastructure are the same areas that municipalities have neglected in providing public parks and green ‘cooling areas.’

It is then becoming increasingly important to change the way we imagine cities. In India, this involves simple solutions such as painting the roofs of buildings white and planting more trees. In fact, in a recent study in Nature’s international journal of science, it was demonstrated that certain neighbourhoods in Los Angeles that did not have trees planted had higher temperatures and more hospitalisations during North America’s heatwave.

But what these increased temperatures translate to is that communities living in certain neighbourhoods are more prone to heat risk, which can have a debilitating effect on the city. Jagarnath’s study concluded that certain parts of Durban may become intolerable unless action is taken to address the rather archaic way towns are planned.

What can be done?

There are relatively easy solutions already mentioned, such a tree planting and painting the roofs of buildings white. but what this issue echoes a greater problem with the way cities and the omniscient threat that is global warming. There is a need to address the way cities are developed argues Jagarnath and her team.

Urban areas with trees and green spaces have proven to be better for public health in some cases. Credit: Unsplash

Heat intolerance has knock-on effects on the functioning of a city, and Ahmedabad, India, one of the country’s predicted to be most affected by climate change, have developed an action plan in dealing with heatwaves and providing cooling areas for residents from the heat. Urban areas tend to be heat islands where the tar roads and rooftops do not reflect heat or provide necessary shade, the ambient temperature of a city is often much higher than the surrounding rural areas.

C40 is a current initiative of 40 cities around the world that focuses on fighting climate change and driving urban action, of which Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg and Tshwane are members. Mayors of cities in the C40 global network have committed to ensuring that by 2030, 70% of city residents are no more than a 15-minute walk or cycle from a green public space.

With its millions of trees, Johannesburg is one of the most forested cities in the world and it seems as though many more will need to be planted to ensure our cities remain liveable.

Also Read:

5 tranquil city greenscapes in Cape Town

The Arctic’s “last ice area” showing signs of global warming, scientists warn

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