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  • Virginia Heretick, TJHS

Urban Heat Island Effect

With college around the corner, last summer was packed with internships, college visits, and extracurriculars. For my break, I visited the Rice University in Houston, Texas. Being from Northern Virginia, July is miserable as the heat pushes the daily highs to around 90℉. For the summer, many leave the state, migrating to the north or traveling overseas to escape the sweltering weather, so choosing to spend the summer in the deep south left many of my friends confused. I was often asked why and how I didn’t completely melt in the heat. Questions also I asked myself as I walked around the university.

As I passed building after building, I wondered why the southern campus did not feel hot. I was sure it was hot outside as the weather app confirmed 103℉. However, after looking up, I had my answer: Oak trees.

With their magnificent branches extending across campus, these large plants provide refuge to the students from the burning summer sun. Although the humidity lingered, the campus itself wasn’t a boiling pot. Excluding the grassy quad, every space had some form of shade from the environment.


After returning home, I learned Rice displayed a solution to the urban heat island effect. A phenomenon where energy from human activity, hard built, increases the temperatures in the surrounding areas. In a naturally hot area, Rice used natural greenery to combat its population-generated heat.


Such techniques are also employed in green roofs, a roof covered with vegetation. A green roof provides insulation, creates a stormwater capacity and management strategy, reduces building temperatures, and lowers energy costs, emissions, and pollution.

Another way of counterbalancing the urban heat island effect is by using more white building materials, pavement or reflective roofs, and less black. A factor in the urban heat island effect is extensive highways. Roads are often paved with black tar, a substance that absorbs a lot of heat, increasing the temperature. Using materials that absorb less light and heat, lowers the temperatures. This is important as temperatures too high can cause health issues, respiratory problems, and heat stroke, which can cause death (EPA).


As an aspiring architect, I am interested in looking into more ways architecture can fight this phenomenon. I am also curious how this will lead to changes in community and gathering places. The planet is ever changing, and building and landscape architecture needs to evolve with it. Without it many places will soon be too hot to handle.


What measures will you take to improve our environment?

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An urban heat island occurs when a city experiences much warmer temperatures than nearby rural areas. The difference in temperature between urban and less-developed rural areas has to do with how well the surfaces in each environment absorb and hold heat.

__________________________________________________________________________________About the Author:

Virginia Heretick is a senior student at Thomas Jefferson High School, Fairfax County, VA. She is an aspiring architect, passionate about art, architecture, urban planning and environment.

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