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The climate is warmer, but this workplace is cooler and greener thanks to its staff

Written by Javed Iqbal

In his 20 years as a hospital doctor, Mark de Souza increasingly saw victims of a warming climate.

“The 20-year-old craftsman who has no family history of this, but he has had three kidney stones. This poor man is just daily, chronically dehydrated,” he said.

“You see more and more children fainting in their free time.

“You see these new recruits in the defense, who have syncopal [fainting] episodes.

“From my perspective, as a doctor and NT health worker, [my obligation] is to mitigate the health effects of climate change and help us adapt to a warming climate so that we can have a prosperous life, but not for the sake of our environment. “

RGB image showing red-hot bitumen in a parking lot.
Thermal imaging of a parking lot at the Royal Darwin Hospital showing December temperatures above 60C.(Delivered to: CSIRO Darwin Living Lab)

A plant trip

Royal Darwin Hospital is a 1970s concrete monolith surrounded by acres of bitumen car parks and adjoining buildings.

It is a carbon copy of Canberra Hospitalso not at all designed for the tropical climate.

The plot is landscaped, but shade is missing in many places.

Dr. de Souza, an emergency specialist, has been involved in NT Health’s committee for sustainable health care, which in the past year has started a plant tour around the hospital.

A gutter surrounded by a concrete building and a concrete wall.
This sun-drenched west-facing wall will one day be shaded by the young plants planted below.(ABC Radio Darwin: Conor Byrne)

Committee members are nurses, surgeons, engineers, infection control staff, janitors, pharmacists and trainees.

“People are starting to hear sprinklers, smelling water on the grass; they feel their skin immediately cool down and become moist as they walk through a place where there is evapotranspiration,” said Dr. of Souza.

“They hear the bird life. They smell flowers. They see a wide variety of leaf structures and flowers.

“People go for a little walk in their breaks just to defragment after a busy shift or after a difficult meeting with the patient.

“Or they are [members of the public are] dealing with a relative who is sick on the ward or they have just received bad news or they are uncomfortable or feeling uncomfortable. They want to get outdoors because the natural environment is really restorative for humans.

Woman in mask kneeling and chalking 'wood' on the ground while people watch.
Royal Darwin Hospital staff “chalk the campus” to brainstorm local ideas to mitigate climate change.(Royal Darwin Hospital: Regis Martin)

How to lower the temperature by up to 20C

CSIRO thermal imaging from December showed that hospital parking spaces reached 60 degrees Celsius.

With CSIRO’s Darwin Living Lab, the committee and stakeholders recently walked the site for an hour and “chalked campus” to identify hotspots that could be mitigated.

Man in CSIRO shirt arms folded sunny day large hospital in background.
CSIRO Darwin Living Lab Coordinator and Senior Environmental Researcher Stephen Cook.(ABC Radio Darwin: Conor Byrne)

Coordinator Stephen Cook said the goal was to understand patients’ and staff’s travels around campus.

“We have a great set-up and a really committed group of people with some great ideas that really highlight some of the challenges they face moving around campus and how the heat affects them in everyday life,” he said. .

“A cool, well-watered area will instantly lower the temperature by up to 20 degrees.

Weeds grow out of a concrete retaining wall.
The committee plans to grow concrete support crib walls around the hospital campus.(ABC Radio Darwin: Conor Byrne)

Minor changes make a big difference

Some quick projects that the committee is working on include trees planted next to sunlit buildings, planters and a newborn forest.

There are plans for native creepers on trellis along shady footbridges and better bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.

“This is a great example of how, with some minor adjustments at very cost-effective prices, we could transform the structures into things that cool and shade during the day,” said Dr. of Souza.

A laminated A4 sign on a fence with the caption 'Do you want to help make our campus greener?'
The bicycle shed is targeted as a source of volunteers.(ABC Radio Darwin: Conor Byrne)

“We have worked with Larrakia elders to give them orders to give their plants of cultural significance, especially those plants that traditionally heal or have bush tucker heritage with them.

“Indigenous people generally do not like being in really air-conditioned environments, and they regularly go outdoors, [where it] … Can be difficult to provide care, especially when they have a drop in the arm and they need regular observations.

“Some patients actually leave the hospital before their treatment is completed. And that can lead to really bad health outcomes and sometimes even death.

A metal screen structure behind a young tree sprayed with a sprinkler.
New planting and irrigation at Royal Darwin Hospital’s “Smoker’s Pavilion”.(ABC Radio Darwin: Conor Byrne)

A “Smoker’s Pavillion” is not a place one would expect health professionals to use their gardening, but the committee believes it is an important part of the area and worthy of being surrounded by native trees.

“It’s actually one of the nicest places to be during the day,” said Dr. of Souza.

Future projects include improving the bike and walking paths around the hospital to discourage car use.

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Javed Iqbal

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