Known for global leadership in setting public climate and sustainability policies, Buro Happold has led a remarkable new effort to redefine how Toronto’s public places provide respite from extremely hot weather — and cold winters, too.

The timely study is the first of its kind in North America. Working with partner firm Dialog and Toronto City Planning, Buro Happold has evaluated the challenges of “extreme heat days,” which are increasing in frequency and intensity, and is creating an official plan and implementation guidance for the new Toronto “comfort guidelines.” The influential work will impact city planning policies and the development application review process, which covers all property development by owners, real estate and others. Ultimately, it could be enshrined in new legislation.

“These are significant new kinds of guidance that city leaders everywhere need to help protect their citizens and support public health in an era of rapid climate change,” said Bing Wang, D.Des., senior building physicist at Buro Happold. “We are very proud to join Toronto City Planning to become the first in North America to undertake this critical kind of advance.”

Toronto’s leaders had previously announced their progressive heat relief strategy in 2022. According to Wang, this new and highly technical work — by Buro Happold and Dialog — builds a new and exacting foundation for city policies that will increase the usage of outdoor space, decrease the number of heat-related illnesses, and improve the mental and physical health and well-being of impacted communities.

“This rigorous, analytical approach goes well beyond the very basic guidelines other cities have created to bring a data-driven approach to evaluating city conditions and the performance of interventions, such as shading, for example,” said Wang, who holds degrees from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design and China’s Tsinghua University. “You can see which strategies are most effective and how to prioritize them.”

Toronto Skyline

Photo courtesy of Buro Happold

Unexpected Findings

According to Buro Happold, the results of the studies aren’t always obvious or expected, even casting doubt on some so-called “common sense” advice published in recent years by other municipalities and states. “While we are still very early in the process, we have already seen some rather counterintuitive findings,” said Krupa Patel, senior energy analytics and sustainability engineer at Buro Happold. “For example, adding canopies provides localized shading and can cool daytime summer temperatures, yet, at night, fixed shading does the opposite, actually trapping heat.”

Buro Happold, along with Dialog and the planning agency, conducted public surveys and stakeholder consultations, including with local indigenous groups, and then built detailed simulations to model how heat mitigation strategies would affect various city locations. The study sites fully represent the cross-section of varied climate, geography, density, zoning and equity across Toronto, Canada’s most populous city and the capital of the Ontario province. It also reflects the city’s summer and winter experiences and the year-round outdoor activities that mark its culture.

Now working on the project’s third phase, Buro Happold and Dialog are summarizing the guidelines and sharing drafts with diverse stakeholders throughout varied communities and city agencies, including the parks department. Included is a road map for follow-up studies by others, offering calculation tools and model tactics for addressing thermal comfort.

The pioneering study is the first on the continent to assess exterior thermal comfort — as well as cold-weather comfort — with a highly customized focus on one city. “Other cities could emulate this approach to extend climate hazard mitigation and adaptation to places around that world,” said Patel, who noted that Buro Happold’s team is working on a similarly technical study for a large U.S. city on the East Coast. “In the meantime, we applaud the City of Toronto for its prescience and deep investment in its citizens’ comfort and well-being.”

Buro Happold is a leader in climate and resiliency studies globally, having completed them for major cities and metropolitan areas, including Los Angeles; Tucson, Arizona; Minneapolis; New York; Chicago; and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The firm also helped write and implement the first-ever municipal action plan fulfilling the requirements of the Paris Agreement — a benchmark project in collaboration with New York City and the global group C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, whose members are committed to addressing climate change impacts. The firm’s Cities practice also brings expertise in transportation, mobility, urban infrastructure and climate resiliency.

Toronto’s website for the Thermal Comfort Study is found here.

Project leaders for Toronto include Rong (Roan) Yu, senior planner in programs and strategies for urban design at Toronto’s City Planning Division.