Rising temperatures in rapidly growing cities make access to the infrastructures for cooling a global challenge. The UN’s ‘Cooling for All’ coalition estimates that 1.1 billion people worldwide have little or no access to cooling to protect them against extreme heat.

Those defined as most at risk include an estimated 630 million people across South Asia, South East Asia and Sub Saharan Africa who live in poor quality housing on low incomes, with limited, intermittent or insecure access to electricity, water and transportation infrastructures, and few if any electrical cooling appliances. 

This research project was developed to fill specific gaps in evidence and data on access to cooling across cities in India, Pakistan, Cameroon and Indonesia. The research design is organised around three main research questions, each anchored in theoretical debates and bodies of academic scholarship. 

i. Heat, Inequality and Gender

How does heat help us to understand and analyse social, economic and gender inequalities in the off grid city? Global heating – or ‘overheating’ – is a crucial contemporary lens for understanding and analysing gendered forms of social and economic inequality, risk, vulnerability and power in cities across the Global South. The four cities in this project – Yaoundé, Karachi, Hyderabad and Jakarta – are marked by different tropical and subtropical conditions which combine high temperatures with (periodically) high humidity to create particularly challenging conditions for human thermal regulation. All four cities have a well documented ‘urban heat island effect’, with the built environment, the extensive use of asphalt and concrete in construction, a high-density population and a lack of green space, adding as much as 12°C to average recorded temperatures. The urban heat island effect is highly localised, with cities recording variegated temperatures across urban districts or neighbourhoods. Current UK funded research to collect data on extreme heat in Sub Saharan African cities, for example, shows that indoor ambient air temperatures in low income residential spaces and informal workplaces can be 10°C higher than recorded levels outside.

Extreme heat disproportionately affects the poorest and most marginalised urban residents, living in densely populated, low-income settlements, who have the least ability to modulate thermal flows and/or their exposure to them. These localised effects are deeply gendered. The levels of exposure and the risks from extreme heat experienced by a middle aged woman in such an area, who spends the day indoors as a caregiver, home maker or home worker, or by a middle aged man who seeks out daily employment in urban construction projects to meet his obligations as a breadwinner intersect with socially constructed norms, roles, attitudes, gender relations; as well as with socio- economic status and forms of labour.

Our project extends current approaches to the assessment of risk from extreme heat by directly addressing the intersection of heat with inequality and gender. This means reframing heat as the bodily experience of space and place rather than a fixed quality of space itself. Capturing the dynamic impacts of heat on gendered bodies requires us to move beyond a data log of indoor or outdoor ambient air temperatures and examine the capacity of women and men to regulate heat by managing their physical movements, by consuming food and water, or through relationships to others. How do women and men experience ‘thermal mobility’ (i.e. the movement up or down categories of access to cooling)? How do people’s ‘thermal aspirations’ (i.e. the desire to live a cooler life) shape economic choices and strategies? What are the ‘thermo-social dynamics’ of the off grid city (i.e. the impact that demand/access to cooling for the rich might have on the poor)? 

ii. Cool Infrastructures 

What is the configuration of systems, materials, technologies, relationships, and knowledge through which marginalised urban residents currently meet their needs for cooling in the off-grid city? Understanding and managing the effects of heat on urban living in the Global South demands new attention not only to the vulnerabilities of specific populations to heat but also to the social and technical infrastructures through which people keep cool. This focus demands attention to what we call ‘cool infrastructures’: a diverse range of technical systems and standalone technologies, relationships and knowledge, that may be geographically distributed and involve diverse forms of work, risk and power. 

Current global and national frameworks for action on heat in cities – from urban heat plans to roadmaps for universal access to cooling – are oriented either by a normative, ‘modern infrastructural ideal’ or by an ‘ecological imaginary’. In one, people are expected to meet future needs for cool bodies, space, food, water and medicine with electrically powered, mechanical appliances. In the other, future cities are kept cool naturally, with rooftop gardens, parks, forests and wetlands constituting a green or blue infrastructure intended to regulate urban climates. Within either framework, the dominant question for empirical research is: how cool do people need to be and how can this level of cooling be provided in the most efficient, clean and sustainable way?

Yet, as much recent scholarship on cities in the Global South shows us, modern infrastructural ideals and ecological imaginaries do little to account for the actual experience of marginalised urban infrastructures in everyday life. Our project takes this seriously, by challenging the assumption that actually existing infrastructures for cooling in the off-grid city are always non-existent, insufficient or inadequate. Our alternative framework for the study of infrastructure is rooted in critical, social science approaches to urban life in the Global South. Working within this frame, the critical question is what do people actually do to keep cool in times of heat?

Such a question firmly locates our project within a ‘southern turn’ in urban studies; one that has sought to empirically and theoretically account for urban life from the Global South. Like recent studies of infrastructures for water and waste, this project seeks to break with normative approaches that present marginalized urban residents only as the target of intervention and examine cool infrastructures as they are lived. In this respect, cool infrastructures demand to be understand primarily as social or ‘relational’ as well as purely technical. Access to cooling involves forms of exchange between individual residents, households, communities and neighbourhoods within a wider moral economy. Cool infrastructures can depend on negotiations within social networks in which gender intersects with identities based on kinship, friendship, language, community, socio-economic status, political affiliation, faith and religion. Our approach also acknowledges ‘informality’ as a constitutive dimension of cool infrastructures in the Global South. Informality (in terms of political status, labour force participation, housing arrangements or access to transportation) establishes the parameters within which marginalised urban residents manage heat and how they mobilise claims to rights and entitlements. What kinds of negotiations with local authorities and institutions, and political struggles for connection to grids for electricity, water, and transportation are required to secure access to forms of mechanical or passive cooling? How do marginalised urban residents act in informal and non-recognized ways to accommodate, adapt to, or respond to extreme heat?And what kinds of thermal publics are created by extreme heat and struggles for cooling, like mobilisations around shade as an inalienable human right?

iii. Thermal Practices, Needs and Capacities 

Global frameworks for action on cooling in cities are premised upon an unexamined techno-politics of thermal comfort. For the past half century, historically and racially constructed ideas about the optimum levels of thermal comfort required for human life have been inscribed in international product standards, building codes and measures of heat tolerance. Global frameworks for action on heating and cooling, across public health and occupational health, continue to reproduce these universalising models.

Over the past twenty years social studies of comfort have used the systematic observation and recording of the routine, tacit and sensory ways that people use light and heat or engage with electrical products and devices to show that thermal comfort is a social practice. This approach moves away from fixed or static understanding of thermal tolerance based on physical or physiological paradigms (race, age, sex) and universalising codes and standards to an understanding of thermal comfort as highly localised, situated in a social, historical, political and material context, embedded in webs of meaning and human experience. Recent analysis of ‘thermal geographies’, for example, expand practice-based approaches to heating and cooling further in ways that interrogate how all social practices produce ‘thermo-dynamic flows’ and demonstrate the utility of everyday practices as a basis for adaptation to extreme heat. 

Such studies have generated powerful insights and impacts. They have informed national energy policy in the UK, for example, and the management of remote mine-sites in Australia. To date, however, such practice-based approaches to the social study of heating and cooling have been based almost entirely on empirical investigations in the colder climates of the northern hemisphere or the relatively rich, ‘white’ tropical climates in the southern hemisphere. Applying social practice theories and methods to questions of energy in the ‘off-grid city’ allows us to generate new information about the importance of cool space for health, wellbeing, identity, culture, heritage and security; the role of cool food and water in sustaining and reproducing relationships, kinship and exchange networks; the ‘affective’ or ‘atmospheric’ qualities of cool air and water; the personal histories, obligations and aspirations that shape energy needs or demands, and the lived experience of disparities and inequalities in energy access. 

Global frameworks for action on cooling that fail to address the wider gendered, social and experiential politics of heat render people’s thermal practices and cultures (what we might even call people’s embodied thermal knowledge or intelligence) invisible. This project seeks to readdress this imbalance, by making thermal practices visible and legible to city planners, policy makers and international organisations to better inform the identification of cooling needs and the development of appropriate and effective cooling actions. To this end, we  ask: How are everyday relationships to cool infrastructures shaped by deeply rooted, alternative understandings of the ‘physics’ or ‘metaphysics’ of heat and health? How are people’s ‘thermal tolerances’ shaped by exposure, exertion and general health, or by forms of precarious work in the context of economic insecurity.