Community meets in Penrith to talk Heatwaves, Health and Hot Homes

Photo of a group of people

This summer, rising temperatures and cost of living have put pressure on people across Western Sydney. On March 9th Sweltering Cities hosted the Heatwaves, Health and Hot Homes community forum in Penrith at Thornton Community Centre. We brought community members together to hear from experts and share ideas for cooler, more equitable suburbs. 60 people attended to join the conversation that was chaired by our Executive Director Emma Bacon.

The event was a great success, with a diverse range of speakers sharing their expertise and experiences. The evening started with a Welcome to Country from Uncle Greg Simms. Uncle Greg is an Aboriginal Elder in Western Sydney of the Gundungurra of the Blue Mountains and the Gadigal Tribe of the Dharug Nation.

Dr. Kim Loo, a Western Sydney GP and heat health expert, spoke about the health risks associated with extreme heat for people across the community, and provided practical advice on how we can stay safe during heatwaves. Dr Loo is a member of the NSW AMA Council and Chair of Doctors for the Environment NSW. She has been speaking out about the impact of extreme heat in her community and the need for climate action from Western Sydney to Parliament House in Canberra. Dr Loo said:

When I work with patients I take their medical history, but I also talk to them about their finances and their homes. We can see that our patient’s ability to stay safe in the heat is influenced by their existing health and whether they can afford to turn on the air conditioner. We can give people more support, but we also need to stop climate change causing the catastrophic heatwaves that will make it impossible for my patients to be safe.

Liz King, Manager of the Skin Cancer Prevention Unit at the Cancer Council NSW
Uncle Greg Simms sharing a Welcome to Country

Liz King, Manager of the Skin Cancer Prevention Unit at the Cancer Council NSW spoke about the risk of skin cancer from sun exposure, the many benefits of shadier parks, playgrounds, suburbs and cities, and what the NSW Government can do to reduce the incidence of skin cancer in our state. Liz told the audience that unfortunately skin cancer is our “National cancer” due to the fact that UV causes at least 95% of all skin cancers in Australia. Shade from trees coupled with high quality shade structures not only cool our streets and parks, they help to reduce our likelihood of developing skin cancer. You can find more information from the Cancer Council about the co-benefits of shade here.

Heidi Lee Douglas, CEO of Solar Citizens, discussed the importance of renewable energy in combating climate change and reducing the risk of heatwaves. Heidi said:

Here in Western Sydney, you have the most to gain from moving to clean energy – because with clean energy we can address climate change, and save money on power bills, and by using electric vehicles run off home solar, save money on fuel costs. And having distributed energy resources – like solar and batteries in your home – makes our electricity grid more resilient.

Solar and batteries also make it cheaper for everyone else on the grid, because they outbid expensive coal and gas. In our national energy market, we use the cheapest power first. So the more solar and batteries we have to add more cheap energy to the grid, the lower the prices for everyone – and the sooner we can push out coal and gas for good.

Ian Tjoelker, the Executive Campaign Manager of 2Hot2Learn, spoke about their successful campaign to get air conditioning in the sweltering classrooms of Springwood High School. 2Hot2Learn are a student campaigning organisation aiming to win climate resilient schools and address the crumbling and unsafe education infrastructure across the state. Ian told the story of how he and fellow students measured temperatures of up to 37° in their classrooms, yet were refused air conditioning because the need was measured by a weather station in a cooler location rather than “the hot microclimate of their crumbling 1960s school buildings”. 

The students went to the media, featuring in the three part ABC Documentary, Big Weather and How to Survive it with Craig Reucassel. Eventually they won the campaign for air con in their hot classrooms, and increased awareness of the issue so that schools across Western Sydney have been prioritised for cooling (though many are yet to have it installed). Ian and the 2Hot2Learn team’s story shows that extreme heat impacts us in a huge range of ways, and that it’s an underrecognised issue in many parts of government. It also shows that community power can make tangible change for more sustainable, liveable and equitable infrastructure and environments. 

Our final speaker was Anoop Sud, who told his story as a Western Sydney resident. Anoop’s story gave a compelling personal perspective on the issues that had been raised, and gave a powerful call to action for cooler, more equitable and sustainable cities.

Anoop Sud telling his story as a Western Sydney Resident
Audience ideas for cooler suburbs

In addition to these expert speakers, community members shared their personal experiences with extreme heat and the challenges they face in staying cool and comfortable during heatwaves.

Audience members were asked to write down their ideas for more sustainable cities and cooler suburbs that we can take to the next parliament. The ideas included:

  • Places to go when it’s hot that aren’t shopping centres
  • More money for public schools to make sure no students are trying to learn in hot classrooms
  • Community healthcare to check on people during heatwaves
  • Incentives to have more trees on rental properties
  • A new commitment and funding to support vulnerable people during heatwaves
  • Schools should have bus shelters on all the school bus stops
  • Better multicultural communication for communities in Western Sydney during heatwaves
  • And more!

The event also provided an opportunity for political candidates from across Western Sydney to hear from the community and experts. Karen McKeown, the Labor candidate for Penrith, attended and spoke briefly about her time as the Mayor of Penrith, and how she will take this knowledge to Parliament if elected. Greens and Independent candidates from across the city also attended.

Sweltering Cities is committed to continuing their work in raising awareness about the impacts of rising temperatures and heatwaves on our health and homes. If you missed this event, be sure to keep an eye out for future events and opportunities to get involved. Together, we can make a difference and create a safer and more sustainable future for our communities.

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