This essay first appeared on Conscious Cities on 15th February 2018.
When we imagine a street, for example in London or Barcelona, we see the same elements that define the familiar topology: road, pavements, scattered lampposts, signs, litter bins and perhaps some street furniture. Yet there is one stark difference in location of the two examples, the climate. In Barcelona the climate allows city folk to wander the streets, sit outside for coffee or find a spot to people watch, in London that very same urban infrastructure often fails to support those activities.
Strangely, the British obsession with weather – or rather the struggle with it has yielded few clever solutions for improving outdoor city life. It is seen as a given that if outdoors, the city has no concern as to most of the physical comforts we seek. Yet there are cities elsewhere that do more for their residents and visitors in the public realm. In Kyoto where it often rains, much of the city centre’s pavements are covered. In many hot cities, it is possible to walk in the shade of trees or colonnades – all historic Bologna is designed this way. In some North American cities, you can walk from one side of downtown to the other without stepping into the cold.
Yet in London where great efforts are put into improving the reliability of infrastructure, close to nothing is done to mitigate the effects of the most powerful agent of unreliability in our streets – the weather. If you think the British approach of ‘just deal with it’ is working, an international study showed that physical activity is highly correlated to weather conditions – including in Britain. That same study cites a drop of 10% to 13% in walking during winter in the US and UK.
In the field of urban design, climate is often completely ignored when addressing the walkability of an environment, and whether it supports outdoor activities. It is accepted that a public space will just not be used in the rain, and seldom visited in the cold. This approach must change to achieve Mayor Sadiq Khan’s target of getting 80% of trips in London to be done by walking, cycling, and public transport.
The draft of the New London Plan does have a short mention of shade and shelter in public places, but its importance should be reconsidered. Walkability, along with other agents of outdoor mobility and street stickiness (how much we want to dwell in a street) are increasingly being correlated to far reaching effects on our physical and mental wellbeing.
A neighbourhood that encourages active travel (walking and cycling) and time outdoors has obvious health benefits, but is also being linked to higher housing desirability, increased social capital, and other seemingly unlikely benefits like preventing nearsightedness and reducing cognitive declinein adults with early dementia. After numerous efforts by cities to find out how to reduce street crime, for example, one consistent factor is proving effective – more people on the streets.
The mental effects are no less important – modern city life is contributing to the epidemic in depression and social isolation, and once again neighbourhood walkability is linked to mitigatingthese trends. Confinement to the home – especially for the elderly – lowers rates of social interaction seen as a staple for our physiological well-being. It isn’t just the elderly who are particularly at risk, a recent study showed that British children spend less time outdoors than prisoners. The truly vulnerable, London’s homeless population of 8,000 are at a much greater risk. This week a homeless man died from freezing temperatures after spending the night in an underpass close to the Houses of Parliament.
For the normative population, new research is now aiming to understand the relationship between the design of neighbourhoods and streets and how they impact our health through walkability. Outcomes are emerging which will begin in helping us optimise the layout of streets and the distribution of infrastructure to so as to best encourage active travel and dwell in public spaces. Given these efforts, it would be bad practice to continue to ignore the significant effect that weather plays on our activity levels,
It seems far-fetched for us to start battling the forces of nature, but there are simple and effective solutions. We don’t need to aim for completely weather-proofing our public spaces, just improving their comfort levels. Methods for creating dry and warm corridors can include blocking wind, cover from rain, to more complex technological solutions that redistribute heat. We have the means to efficiently gather and store green energy to create more hospitable spots.
We must formulate strategies that take climate into account in planning decisions and investments in infrastructure. Applications for new developments and renovations should include clear considerations of dry and warm zones as standard. Tackling the climate driven effects on walkability should be considered within any municipality budget aimed at improving mobility, alongside public transport.
A vision for a new downtown district in Toronto by the Canadian government and Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs is highlighting the potential of climate mitigation. Their strategy projects to double the amount of comfortable outdoor hours in its streets “by reducing the impact of wind, increasing shade on sunny days, and blocking rain”. It is clear that by their calculations, these are worthy investments.
The urban agenda is gaining prominence, and the link between the environment we build and its effect on ourselves is gaining resolution. The effective design of cities will be part of any serious effort to tackle society’s current and future challenges. If cities are to develop in ways that help us thrive, British cities must start tackling our terrible weather. Unless we’re too worried we’d have nothing to talk about.
- Itai Palti, Director of Architecture & Design for Centric Lab.