Extreme weather, such as heat, storms and bushfire smoke, affects us all, but we know it affects some people in our community more than others.

Jesuit Social Services’ Centre for Just Places recently completed a project which set out to hear what people in the City of Darebin in the northern suburbs of Melbourne need from Council to stay safe and well during extreme weather. Given Darebin is among the areas in Greater Melbourne with the highest vulnerability to heat, many conversations centred on experiences of heatwaves.

We focused on community members made more vulnerable to climate change by intersecting experiences of social, economic, cultural, political and institutional marginalisation – including older people, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, people from migrant and refugee backgrounds, and people experiencing locational and intergenerational disadvantage.  And we used a relational, co-design method, working closely with community services and community leaders to shape our engagement with community members.

We heard that heat traps people in their homes, contributing to sedentary lifestyles and social isolation. While messaging from community services and advice from doctors was to stay inside, older people and people with chronic health conditions knew that being at home was also putting them at risk because of their homes’ poor solar orientation, lack of insulation, lack of air conditioning, and the cost of electricity. Participants with air conditioning were often forced to ration its use due to energy prices.

“I don’t want to [ask the landlord to] do insulation work to help me reduce my bill and consumption of energy because her first move will be to increase the rent.”

Darebin resident

Older people commented on service disruptions during extreme heat – for example, some in-home care services are stopped when temperatures reach 38C – as well as the lack of local services and activities available at cooler times of day.

Cultural and community safety concerns were also contributors to keeping people at home. Many participants expressed an interest in going to their local pool or shopping centre on hot days but felt uncomfortable in these spaces. A young Sudanese participant in Preston told us she felt more at ease at home, where she didn’t have to ‘cover up’ and could remove her hijab.

Accessibility and inclusion were identified as key, not only in mitigating the impacts of extreme heat but in ensuring ongoing connection with those most at-risk of social isolation. We heard some stories of organisations stepping up to respond. For example, the facilitator of an elderly men’s group in East Reservoir told us:

“On hot days, we keep our groups running as we know that most of our clients don’t have access to air-conditioning. Clients are picked up in taxis or air-conditioned buses and brought to the centre where we can make sure that they are hydrated and keep cool.”

Participants strongly believed in the expansion of landlord and public housing obligations to include external shutters and low-energy retrofits for thermal comfort and safety. But several renters preferred to ‘keep their mouth shut’ rather than risk rent rises. One said:

“I don’t want to [ask the landlord to] do insulation work to help me reduce my bill and consumption of energy because her first move will be to increase the rent.”

Jesuit Social Services’ 2021 Dropping off the Edge research into locational disadvantage found that communities experiencing higher levels of social and economic disadvantage were also disproportionately affected by environmental risks and harms such as extreme heat, poor air quality and lower levels of green canopy.

Participants often spoke about the challenges of living in poor quality housing in areas with few trees, but we also heard positive stories. One tenant shared how the design, location and surrounding greenery makes their home comfortable through summer, telling us, “being on the first floor with all the trees in summer – I love it. It’s better than being on the beach.”

Rent had steadily risen over years for this resident, but they choose to reduce other expenses to stay in their house. Currently, they spend half of their pension on rent and are always seeking ways to reduce their bills, including switching off their fridge for a few hours each day and  planning showers to turn off the water heater unless needed.

Finally, we found that participants use a diverse range of strategies to keep themselves well during extreme heat, including freezing water bottles to bring into bed with them at night, scheduling activities in the evenings, and planning to spend a couple of hours at an air-conditioned RSL with friends.

Participants provided a large number of recommendations on specific strategies to keep Darebin residents safe and well during extreme weather. We found the highest level of support for:

  • Helping people fix their homes to make them cooler throughout summer, using less energy and money (including rental properties)
  • Help for people struggling with energy bills (including guiding them to access support services)
  • Support for people to install rooftop solar panels and other renewable energy, to keep energy bills affordable

There is only space here to share a small fraction of the reflections we heard during this project. We’d like to thank the many participants who shared their experiences and ideas with us.

City of Darebin will use the information and ideas gathered from the community to design adaptation programs, inform their next Climate Emergency Strategy, and draw on the relationships strengthened during the project to identify opportunities for community-led climate-related projects.