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Scorching Cities Like Buenos Aires Are Not Just About Global Warming

Buildings, tarmac and air conditioning are turning some cities into fetid, airless saunas. Experts urge more trees and grass to mitigate the heat of increasingly hot cement jungles.

Street heat in Buenos Aires
Street heat in Buenos Aires
Miguel Jurado


BUENOS AIRES — Buildings, tarmac and the colonial laws of Spain will make us suffocate from heat. For we are not suffering from high temperatures just because of global warming. On an ordinary summer day in Buenos Aires, the thermal sensation is almost five degrees Celsius higher than Greater Buenos Aires and 10 more than in country areas. Why? Because of buildings, tarmac and the Laws of the Indies.

Let's take it in parts. All big cities suffer from the so-called heat island effect, which has four causes. The first is lack of trees, bushes and plants that create shade for buildings and cool the air through evaporation. Second is the proliferation of impermeable material on buildings and of dark pavement like asphalt that absorbs heat. Third is the lack of ventilation between buildings. And the final cause is the heat given off by cars and air conditioning.

Evidently, Buenos Aires has all these conditions, even though it does have many trees and parks. They could be better distributed, and there should perhaps be more.

To make the situation even worse, our city is a daughter of the laws and norms Spain imposed to rule the Americas, which were mistaken in certain areas.

Now, the Spaniards meant no harm (don't get me started on that), but they lacked imagination. In the early 16th century when those laws were compiled, nobody thought cities could become what they have today. For example, Spanish colonial law envisioned preventing, not encouraging, local winds. The laws stated that the streets should be traced outward from a central square with corners in the same direction as the main winds. Thus Buenos Aires was built with the Plaza de Mayo facing east to west and its junction with the Yrigoyen and Bolívar streets facing southwest, whence comes the vigorous Pampero wind.

The corner of Yrigoyen and Balcarce faces southeast, where the southeastern wind comes in. Our peninsular ancestors didn't want the wind to blow along the avenues and raise dust and goodness knows what else.

Buildings block breezes

We were deprived of these main winds then, though colonial streets did allow the movement of breezes from the Río del Plata. That is, until the city grew with more and more cement and asphalt, which helped accumulate heat. A recent study from the Journal of Geophysical Research concluded that accumulation of heat in cities hinders air circulation and increases pollution. So long then, breeze from the Río del Plata!

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Opening the windows in the Argentine capital. Photo: Herman Pinera

Certainly there is global warming and we all suffer it, but in cities like Buenos Aires, insufficient greenery, buildings and tarmac make it much hotter than surrounding regions. Our founder Pedro de Mendoza wasn't wrong to plan the city facing a river, but because everything we build now blocks its pleasant breeze, we can see how Buenos Aires has become overheated and its air polluted.

Two recent studies confirm this. Specialists considered how the wind behaves in very polluted cities. Houston, one of the most polluted in the United States, is in this sense very similar to Buenos Aires. It is close to a bay, a few kilometers from the Gulf of Mexico, but building development has blocked the winds that used to take smog out to sea by night. Yet buildings are not the only, or even the primary, cause of this effect in Houston. It's the heat from sidewalks that changed the conduct of winds and ensured that polluted air would hover over the city.

The author of that study, Fei Chen, believes that unfettered city growth could curb winds even more and increase pollution. "Air circulation should today be a fundamental concern in designing cities," he says.

Paradoxically, for refreshing breezes to blow, a city's temperature must be reduced and for that, experts urge cities to plant more trees and grass and build a recreational lake or two.

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Chinese Students' "Absurd" Protest Against COVID Lockdowns: Public Crawling

While street demonstrations have spread in China to protest the strict Zero-COVID regulations, some Chinese university students have taken up public acts of crawling to show what extended harsh lockdowns are doing to their mental state.

​Screenshot of a video showing Chinese students crawling on a soccer pitch

Screenshot of a video showing Chinese students crawling

Shuyue Chen

Since last Friday, the world has watched a wave of street protests have taken place across China as frustration against extended lockdowns reached a boiling point. But even before protesters took to the streets, Chinese university students had begun a public demonstration that challenges and shames the state's zero-COVID rules in a different way: public displays of crawling, as a kind of absurdist expression of their repressed anger under three years of strict pandemic control.

Xin’s heart was beating fast as her knees reached the ground. It was her first time joining the strange scene at the university sports field, so she put on her hat and face mask to cover her identity.

Kneeling down, with her forearms supporting her body from the ground, Xin started crawling with three other girls as a group, within a larger demonstration of other small groups. As they crawled on, she felt the sense of fear and embarrassment start to disappear. It was replaced by a liberating sense of joy, which had been absent in her life as a university student in lockdown for so long.

Yes, crawling in public has become a popular activity among Chinese university students recently. There have been posters and videos of "volunteer crawling" across universities in China. At first, it was for the sake of "fun." Xin, like many who participated, thought it was a "cult-like ritual" in the beginning, but she changed her mind. "You don't care about anything when crawling, not thinking about the reason why, what the consequences are. You just enjoy it."

The reality out there for Chinese university students has been grim. For Xin, her university started daily COVID-19 testing in November, and deliveries, including food, are banned. Apart from the school gate, all exits have been padlock sealed.

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