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Urban Design Enlisted As Weapon To Combat Heat Island Effect

Shade sails help cool the SkySong development in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Cygnusloop99 via Wikimedia Commons

Shade sails help cool the SkySong development in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Much has changed since 19th-century wit Oscar Wilde said conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative.

Today’s climate dialogue includes ways that Las Vegas can continue to thrive despite a warming environment and worsening urban heat island.

“The world is waking up to the urgency of climate change at the moment. That’s why we’re having this discussion,” Steffen Lehmann, head of UNLV’s School of Architecture, told State of Nevada.

Lehmann will appear as a panelist at an Oct. 15 forum put on by the Urban Land Institute to discuss its new report Scorched: Extreme Heat and Real Estate.

The study details how the development industry is responding to heat islands, where things such as blacktop and roofing tiles absorb heat and raise cities’ temperatures.

“If you can picture all of the typical urban materials around you, all the hard surfaces and lack of green space, all of that absorbs and retains heat and that makes urban areas much hotter,” said Elizabeth Foster, who wrote the Scorched report and will be the keynote speaker at next week’s forum

Fighting back are projects like SkySong, a mixed-use development in Scottsdale, Ariz., that’s featured in Scorched. SkySong, which serves as the innovation center for Arizona State University, clusters its buildings and otherwise leverages shade.

“In SkySong they prioritize shade, so they actually custom-built very iconic shade sails that dominate the development,” Foster said.

Foster said there are lots of ways to fight the urban heat island effect and adapt to a warming climate but it must be done quickly.

“One of the things that I was most excited about and found most promising during research is that wide-spread adoption of mitigation strategies could significantly help reduce urban warming trends,” she said.

Lehmann is focused on finding realistic and practical solutions for urban heat from addressing traffic congestion to making the city denser. 

He also advocates retrofitting the ubiquitous tile roofs on Las Vegas homes to something that reflects heat instead of absorbing it.

“As we need to rethink cities for the age of global warming and warmer temperatures, it is better now than ever. It is not too late but let’s get moving, let’s deal with it. Let’s retrofit,” he said.

Lehmann points out that improving cities isn't just about making them more livable into the future but it is about addressing a current public health problem, which is why addressing the heat island effect is crucial.

“We know what’s coming, more frequent, more severe heatwaves and that’s why I think urban heat is one of the big tickets that we’re going to have to look out for and we’re going to have to start fixing now,” he said.

Joining Lehmann on the panel will be John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority; Tom Warden of Howard Hughes Corp.; and Tom Perrigo, chief sustainability officer for the city of Las Vegas.

The Scorched event begins with networking at 8 a.m. on Oct. 15 at the Molasky Corporate Center in downtown Las Vegas.


Elizabeth Foster, senior associate, Urban Land Institute; Steffen Lehmann, director, UNLV School of Architecture

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With deep experience in journalism, politics, and the nonprofit sector, news producer Doug Puppel has built strong connections statewide that benefit the Nevada Public Radio audience.