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Researchers think a key to cooling cities lies in Naples' ancient aqueducts

The Cool City Project looks to use the city's existing infrastructure — in some cases, centuries old and hidden underground — to combat life-threatening heat waves.
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In the Italian city of Naples, some climate change solutions may be as ancient as the coastal outpost itself, according to researchers who are studying how the area's historic waterways could bring relief from extreme heat as the world warms.

Architects and design students in Italy and the United States are collaborating on an initiative to map ancient aqueducts and water systems in Naples. Known as the Cool City Project, the goal is to assess how this existing infrastructure — in some cases, centuries old and hidden underground — could combat life-threatening heat waves in one of the most densely populated parts of Europe and one of the oldest cities in the world.

"Naples is sometimes called the capital of the midday sun because of where it's located in the south of Italy," said Nick De Pace, an architect and professor at the Rhode Island School of Design. "It's a dense city in an area that is already dealing with geothermal heating. And then on top of that, you have climate change."

Researchers explore the ancient Chiatamone spring in Naples, Italy.
Researchers explore the ancient Chiatamone spring in Naples, Italy.Nick De Pace

Though the effects of climate change can be felt in every corner of the planet, cities are at particular risk from extreme heat because of a phenomenon known as the "urban heat island effect." Densely populated areas tend to experience higher temperatures than more rural communities because buildings, roads and other human-made structures absorb and retain more heat than natural landscapes.

Within cities, studies have shown that those most vulnerable during heat waves are children, older people and disadvantaged communities that already bear a disproportionate burden of the consequences of climate change.

In many ways, Naples lies at the intersection of these concerns, which makes it a compelling laboratory to study potential solutions, De Pace said.

"Naples is historically a relatively poor city with high levels of unemployment, and it's also a place that is expected to experience two to three months of extreme heat by the middle of this century," he said. "This is a city seriously at risk."

The Cool City Project is exploring ways to revive ancient springs, aqueducts and waterways in Naples, Italy, to combat the urban heat island effect.
The Cool City Project is exploring ways to revive ancient springs, aqueducts and waterways in Naples, Italy, to combat the urban heat island effect.Nick De Pace

As part of the Cool City Project, De Pace and his colleagues are trying to tap into solutions that are hidden in plain sight.

To start, the researchers are using laser-scanning technology to map Naples' extensive aqueduct system and underground canals. The idea is to examine if reviving these ancient waterways, or resurfacing them, could counter the urban heat island effect.

"Daylighting portions of a canal could have a cooling effect in the summer, just like how you can feel a cooling effect from basements," De Pace said. "Then, you can also divert some of that water to new green spaces in the city where you have plants and other things to cool things down."

Naples is a compelling place to test such ideas because the city already has a rich history with water, said Alexander Valentino, an architect and Cool City collaborator who is based in Naples.

Many of the city's oldest aqueducts can be found today underground, hidden beneath modern buildings and roads. These waterways and streams were used throughout history to move water into and around Naples, Valentino said, but changes beginning in the 19th century significantly altered the region's water landscape.

As Naples modernized, watersheds were diverted for irrigation, some canals were built over and many properties along the coast were earmarked for private development. These decisions changed the relationship that Naples residents had with water and carried important cultural implications, Valentino said.

"It became a city on the sea without access to the sea," he added.

The Cool City Project is designed to explore new uses for Naples' abandoned or mismanaged water resources, but the lessons learned could be applied in different parts of the world, according to De Pace. A separate cohort of the Cool City Project conducted research in South Korea, investigating innovative ways to use existing subterranean waterways in a traditional village in Seoul.

While cities in North America may not have the same vast network of ancient aqueducts, the work in Naples and Seoul could help architects better understand how to design sustainable green infrastructure, including how to maximize the cooling effect of water in urban centers, De Pace said.

Valentino and his colleagues have been running workshops in Naples to raise awareness about the city's water issues and how they could be exacerbated by climate change. Early next year, De Pace and a group of his students will join him on the ground in Naples to continue work on the Cool City Project.

For De Pace, it has been a long time coming. The field work in Italy was originally set to occur in 2020 but was derailed by the Covid-19 pandemic. He said he's eager to challenge his students to integrate climate solutions into architectural design — a lesson with applications that extend far beyond Naples and its unique circumstances.

"Some of the solutions are actually pretty simple," De Pace said. "It's just a matter of rethinking what you see in front of you and finding ways to invest more in green infrastructure."