It is nearly six years since 173 people died in Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires — our nation’s deadliest bushfires on record.
The fires had a devastating impact.
But a lesser known fact is that in the five-day heatwave leading up to the tragedy, 374 people died from heat stress.
That fact is a reminder that when the temperature rises, there are many among us — particularly the elderly and the very young — whose lives are at risk.
There is little we can do to control firestorms like Black Saturday or those that ravaged the Adelaide Hills recently.
But we can mitigate the effects of the extreme heat on our cities and towns if we think harder about town planning and building design.
Take a look around you next time you walk down a city street this summer.
Too often you’ll probably find little vegetation, not much shade and many hard, dark coloured surfaces that absorb heat.
You might also notice that the tall buildings surrounding you are preventing any breeze from providing relief at ground level.
Overseas research has shown that the temperature in the dense parts of cities can be more than 5.6 degrees higher than nearby areas that have breezes, vegetation and fewer buildings.
Scientists call these urban hot spots heat islands. And when there’s a heatwave, people who live in heat islands, particularly the elderly, are at risk.
But with co-operation from governments and the development and urban design industries, we can reduce the heat in our cities, making them safer and more productive.
For example, the City of Melbourne has estimated that during a four-day heatwave in January 2014, business across the city suffered a $37 million decline in revenue due to lost custom and increased operating costs.
That’s why the council is working to lift its tree canopy from its current level of 22 per cent in all public areas to 40 per cent by 2040.
Greater use of heat-reflecting light colours can also help.
At the same time, scientists are working on developing building materials for roads and footpaths that are more porous and hold less heat, and designers are creating buildings designed to reduce the effects of heat, if for no other reason than to reduce power costs for air-conditioning.
A great example is Sydney’s One Central Park development, which has the world’s biggest vertical garden.
Shade provided by the exterior plants reduces the need for heating and cooling while rainwater collection and solar panels reduce the need for externally sourced power and water.
It has been recognised as the best tall building in the world for its sustainability features.
However, we also need to ensure the heat issue remains high on the agenda to avoid making the same design mistakes again and again.
Labor takes the view that the Commonwealth can improve our cities by providing policy leadership to ensure they are the best they can be.
The former Labor government created the nation’s first Urban Design Protocol.
This was developed with industry and included a checklist for designers to ensure they took into account a range of quality-of-life issues including heat.
We also produced an annual State of the Cities report produced by our Major Cities Unit to explore issues relating to urban policy, pointing to areas that needed improvement.
Regrettably, the current Government is not active in this area, or in any other area of urban policy. After taking office, it scrapped the Major Cities Unit and has withdrawn from urban policy development.
Extreme heatwave conditions represent a major health issue with economic as well as social impacts.
This issue is the perfect example of how politicians can become so blinded by ideology and defensiveness that they lose sight of areas where they can make a real difference to people’s lives.
Cities are too often seen by federal legislators as little more than part of the machinery of our economy.
Cities are drivers of our economy, but cities are also places where people live.
We need to make sure that cities not only serve our economy, but also serve the people who call them home.
This piece was first published in the Herald Sun on Friday, 4 December 2015.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.