How cities are keeping cool at 40 degrees

19 July 2022

As a scorching heatwave sweeps through Europe, holding the continent in the grip of its sweltering hand, municipalities are stepping in to help locals cope with extreme weather conditions. 

Cities in Great Britain and France are offering free access to cooler spaces to residents desperate for a respite from the heat.

Museums, libraries, community centres, swimming pools and sports arenas are providing temperature-controlled shelter for those who can’t flee the city. Maps locating water fountains and vegetation as well as targeted help for the homeless are among city services helping inhabitants to deal with the unexpected.  

Over 1,000 people have died as temperatures rise up to 43C in Spain, Portugal,  France, Great Britain, Italy and parts of Germany. In natural areas, wildfires have already swallowed up 10,000 hectares of land.

A water fountain in London
A water fountain in London. Photo by Gonzalo Facello

A map will cool you

While in Europe’s southernmost regions and the Middle East traditional homes feature thick walls, smaller windows and large shaded areas to offer shelter from the sun, buildings in Northern Europe were historically made to attract heat in a fresher environment.  

Notoriously cool and rainy even in the summer, Great Britain and Ireland now worryingly observe the thermometer’s mercury climb up in places unsuited to deal with extreme heat. 

In London, for example, homes boast large windows; apartment buildings often lack balconies and air conditioning, exacerbating the consequences of boiling-hot temperatures. In these conditions, it’s not just the elderly and those with chronic and severe illness who are most at risk but the entire population, Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London said. 

“These temperatures pose a danger to all Londoners, no matter how fit and healthy they may be,” Khan declared last week as the city prepared contingency plans to face the heat emergency on 18 and 19 July.   

In a press release, the London mayor offered guidance for surviving record-high temperatures and urged people to check on the elderly and those living alone.

Meanwhile, Transport for London (Tfl) – the body in charge of the city’s transport network – encouraged travellers to “only use public transport for essential journeys.” 

Trees in Brussels
Photo by Single.Earth

Those fit enough to travel around town, meanwhile, can find an ally in the ‘Cool Spaces’ app. The tool spotlights water fountains, outdoor and indoor cool areas, tree canopy covers and waterways located all over the city. Residents seeking refuge from the heat can identify a place near them and reach it via the closest metro station, which also appears on ‘Cool Spaces’.  

Temperature-controlled locations on the online map include the Tate Britain museum, where people can keep cool while strolling through masterpieces by William Turner, pre-Raphaelite painters and John Singer Sargent’s high-society portraits.  

Libraries feature prominently in ‘Cool Spaces’, along with landmarks such as the O2 music and concert arena, cathedrals, churches, mosques and parks.  

A three-tier system spotlights cooling locations according to what they offer: places classified as Tier 1 have most amenities such as free drinking water, toilets and accessibility features.  

Khan’s strategy for London includes a plan to assist the homeless, who are among those most at risk. Among the measures, an appeal to associations to increase support and the frequency of services to rough sleepers, from frequent health checks to water distribution. 

Facing the emergency in France

Relentless heat is blanketing municipalities far up in the North of France. In Lille, near the border with Belgium, residents can consult an online map highlighting locations to cool down.  

Like London’s, the plan spotlights green areas, waterways and buildings, from public gardens and squares, to water fountains, swimming pools and even cemeteries.  

A view of Bordeaux's city centre
Bordeaux’s city centre. Photo by stuthnagyniki.

In Western France, temperatures up to 41C prompted Bordeaux to grant free access to museums from 12:00 and on Sundays. The municipality has also extended swimming pools’ opening hours until 20:00 and parks’ until 23:00.  

Down South, Grenoble’s heatwave plan includes an array of measures. The elderly, people with a disability and living alone can insert their names on a list that the municipality consults to offer assistance to those in need. The city is also granting free access to public showers and museums.  

So far, the heatwave is sparing municipalities further up North in Europe. Although temperatures range between 22 and 27C in Riga these days, the Latvian capital is preparing to face possible emergencies in the future by expanding its green areas’ surface.

When dealing with hotter weather, Riga sprays water on the streets and adopts solutions to cool down tram tracks to avoid traffic disruptions. 


Daniela Berretta Eurocities Writer