Concept: Heat Island Mini City, an Educational Display

This realistic city model shows you how hot different building materials and urban spaces can get in the summer. Paired with a FLIR thermal camera and mock sun (a heat lamp), people can literally see the urban heat island effect in real-time on a large digital screen, and learn what we can do to cool cities down.

Katie Patrick
Urban Canopy


Sketch of the set up for the Heat Island Mini City display

The Heat Island Mini City is an educational display that helps residents, city planners, building owners, architects, and students see the urban heat island effect in real-time. This fun and interactive model can be installed in public buildings such as museums, corporate foyers, colleges, and galleries.

The Heat Island Mini City consists of a small 4ft x 6ft model city that is made from real building materials. Buildings are made from concrete and brick. Roofs are made from aluminum, concrete, and ceramic tile. Roads are made from asphalt. Natural areas are made from living grass with living miniature trees. Some buildings have real living green roofs made from moss. The model has a lake that is filled with water. Each material is used to accurately reflect the thermal properties of a real city. The model is designed to show a contrast between “good” building surfaces that reflect sunlight, and “bad” materials that exacerbate urban heating. Some buildings feature cool roofs, reflective roofs, white roofs, and green roofs, contrasted against other buildings with black roofs and roads with exposed bitumen.

The display is heated with a hanging heat lamp that creates a kind of “mock sun.” The model city is filmed with a FLIR thermal camera that is permanently suspended above the display. The image captured by the thermal camera is displayed in real-time on a large color display screen. Next to the screen is an information display that helps prompt viewers to take an action to cool their own home or workplace, such as installing a cool or white roof, a green trellis, or planting more shade trees.

Viewer can interact with the display by moving model cars around the city, and they’ll be able to see the thermal image if their hand displayed on the screen. The display will clearly indicate the different thermal qualities of green spaces vs concrete and asphalt surfaces.

A large screen displays the image from the thermal camera
FLIR thermal cameras show the temperature of surfaces using a color spectrum.

What it includes

  • A 4ft x 6ft table with a model city display, featuring various building materials with different thermal properties.
  • Miniature trees, grass, and green roofs.
  • A small watering system to maintain green spaces in the model.
  • 50 matchbox cars (cars get hot too!)
  • A FLIR thermal camera.
  • A heat lamp.
  • Cables to suspend the heat lamp and FLIR camera.
  • A Dell display screen.
  • Information display that prompts actions people can take in their home or workplace.

The problem with urban heat

Cities are getting hotter than ever. The vast amounts of asphalt, bricks, and concrete used in cities absorbs the sun’s heat, and creates what’s called an urban heat island. When you look at thermal images of cities taken on hot days, you can clearly see how roads, car parks, and city centers show up in red and scarlet — they are baking hot. The surfaces of asphalt and metal roofing can reach 200F on a hot day, and the city as a whole can get 10 degrees hotter than natural areas surrounding it.

This compounding effect of urban heat has dramatic consequences for human health and for carbon emissions. When it gets really hot, lots people turn on lots of air conditioners, which can use up so much electricity that it doubles the demand the electricity grid. Heat also causes lots of people to end up in the emergency unit of the hospital because of heat-related illness, and in some cases, this can be fatal.

Urban heat is one of the major issues of our time as cities get hotter from the effect of climate change, and we’re in turn making more climate change causes emissions by running air conditioners to keep the heat at bay. Read our more in depth article on the problems with urban heat.

The interesting thing is though, that we can do something about it. Reducing the urban heat island effect is in our grasp, and all it takes is simple technology that isn’t expensive — more green spaces, more white surfaces, and more trees. While closing an entire coal power station is difficult and controversial, turning a local little-used car park into a green space is a doable project — and everyone loves green space.The Heat Island Mini City is a fun, novel, and interactive way for people to learn about the urban heat island effect, and direct people toward taking greening and cooling measures in their home, workplaces and schools.


Data has a remarkable way of catalyzing action, especially when it’s displayed in color, and on a map! If we can install a Heat Island Mini City in public buildings in every city that suffers from extreme urban heat, we could catalyze an exciting new wave of urban greening. School groups would see it, and a new generation of environmental literacy would be born, with children and adults learning about how urban design effects climate change and human health so drastically.

We can catalyze as inspired wave of community action to create green and resilient cities.

Call to action

Interested in getting The Heat Island Mini City installed in a building you’re involved in? Hello World Labs can built one for you. Email our founder Katie Patrick at kp[at] to arrange a proposal. We’d love to built a Heat Island Mini City for you!

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Katie Patrick
Urban Canopy

Environmental Engineer | “Fitbit for the Planet” Designer | Author of How to Save the World | Learn how to gamify sustainability at