When reflecting on sustainable design we often get caught up in buildings and their individual points for sustainability. Though we love watching zero-energy homes and LEED certified office buildings go up, sometimes we forget about the bigger picture — the urban planning picture. A new study released by NASA on the urban heat island effect in the northeast United States has drawn special attention to the immense problem. The new study says that some cities in the northeast can be on average up to 16 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than their surrounding rural areas. With climate change issues growing ever so rapidly, this problem is expected to worsen in the coming years.

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“This, at least to our knowledge, is the first time that anybody has systematically compared the heat islands of a large number of cities at continental and global scales,” said Ping Zhang, a scientist at Goddard Space Flight Center and the lead author of the report. Urban heat islands pose risks to the surrounding environments, not only changing temperatures to have huge effects on vegetation and animals alike, but they can also be detrimental to human health. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that urban heat exposure killed more people between 1979 and 2003 than did hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes combined.

“The finding raises the question: what can we do to design our cities in ways that will blunt the worst effects of heat islands?” asked Cecile de Munck, of the French Centre for Meteorological Research of Meteo-France who conducted modeling research on heat absorption in urban areas. NASA’s satellite photos show how densely populated an area is, how much vegetation it has, and varying degrees of temperature recorded in those areas and the rural areas around it. As a small remedy however, NASA notes that painting urban surfaces white and increasing the square footage of vegetation — including adding green roofs — has the ability to soften the heat island effect. City-wide efforts to increase green spaces — like NYC’s green roof initiative — could reduce the effects of urban heat islands and positively impact the big picture of sustainable design.

+ Read more about the NASA research project

Via Science Daily

Lead photo courtesy of NASA, depicts population density around Providence, RI