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More on climates and cities

posted Jan 28, 2015, 2:22 AM by Patricia Martin

The study of climate in cities has focused on the effects of urban environments on climate. In this field, researchers have investigated small-scale processes such as atmospheric turbulence generated by buildings, and large-scale processes such as the Urban Heat Island (UHI) effect. However, little research has studied the influence of climate in the social environment of cities. What is not yet understood is the importance of climate in people’s behaviour in cities. By understanding how people experience climatic conditions, architects could improve the design of urban public spaces to enhance their use and therefore foster integration and improve quality of life in cities. A more integrated view of architecture and climate could generate more stimulating environments and enhance consciousness of the importance of climate. Commonly, architects and engineers have considered climatic conditions as factors to counteract in their search for a neutral climatic environment. However, climatic conditions can be used to enrich the experience of the urban space.

All living organisms, including humans, must deal with the energy fluxes of their surrounding environment. In fact, life is only possible in a very small range of temperatures, and all species have specific limits in which they can survive. The human body produces heat continuously through its metabolism. The heat produced in excess by metabolism is dissipated to the surrounding environment through the skin. The body absorbs heat from direct solar radiation and long-wave radiation from surrounding surfaces and the sky. It loses heat through convection due to air temperature differences and wind flow, and through conduction with the surfaces it comes into contact with. Besides, when perspiring, the body loses heat through evaporation on the skin. When energy fluxes are balanced, comfort is reached.

                                                                                                                                                              Thermal balance outdoors.

Bur thermal comfort is also defined as: “that condition of mind which expresses satisfaction with the thermal environment”. This definition of comfort implies that comfort is highly subjective and depends on each individual. Moreover, the meaning of comfort varies depending on time, location, culture, or society. During the last century, changes in the meaning of comfort caused a drastic transformation of our environment. From the paving of urban surfaces to the air-conditioning of interior spaces, the desire for comfort has established different conceptualizations of the relationship between man and environment.

Ice Swimming at the Uittamo beach in Turku, Finland, in January 2012. Author: Candida.Performa

For example, Klinenberg (2002) explains in his study how coping with the environment establishes different social organizations and affects urban life using the case of the heat waves in Chicago. In the 1960s and 1970s heat waves, Chicagoans stayed outdoors and cooled themselves in public fountains. However, during the heat wave of 1995, achieving comfort became an individual matter, as people took shelter inside air-conditioned buildings.

Heat Waves In New York And Children Cooling Off. Source:

Comfort should not be defined as a state of thermal neutrality. Heschong (1979) compared the thermal experience with the delight of savouring a meal. We have specific nutritional needs that could be met with pills or bars containing the exact amounts and varieties of nutrients required by our bodies. But having food is not merely a physiological need. It is an essential part of culture and society and an experience of tastes, aromas, and textures. Heschong stated that thermal experience also has the “potential for such sensuality, cultural roles, and symbolism” as felt when sunbathing in the summer on the beach, swimming in the sea’s cold water, enjoying saunas, or promenading. So here I advocate for passive design approaches that not only meet thermal needs, but also bring back thermal coping and sensing strategies, and open up new dimensions of architectural experience.

Moreover, as temperatures keep rising all over the planet due to climate change, the achievement of fixed standards will become even more difficult in the future. Therefore, as many authors state, the challenge for architects and urban designers is to design environments that provide opportunities for different conditions, broadening the sensory experiences and stimulation available within the built environment. A more integrated view of architecture and climate will create more stimulating environments. I advocate for an architecture that is not an end in itself, nor is it just a pragmatic “tool” for satisfying specific functional demands. Instead, it is a means to enhance the existence of individuals and their experiences of the environment. It suggests the opposite of a generic approach. It seeks a context-sensitive, user-oriented design, where the specific needs of people and communities, their cultural and historical context and the unique characteristics of a given place are the foundation of design choices.