Photo Credit: Rockaway Youth on Banner by user Light Brigading

On Celebrating Climate

When I lived in Oregon many years ago there was a humorous expression: "Oregonians Don't Tan, they Rust!" There was much truth to that as much of late fall and winter in the Northwest is damp and rainy. Yet, this weather system is one of the aspects of place I remember most fondly; I can still recall the look and feel and smell of that rain. There was certainly not the sense that the rainy season was to be dreaded, rather it was one of the aspects of place that contributed positively to the special sense of place there. Perhaps today in too many parts of our country, there is a profound disconnect from the climatic conditions and forces that shape those environments. It has become too easy to withdraw to the warmth (or cool) of our homes and offices buildings, experiencing the outdoor elements primarily when we move from car to building and back again. Does it have to be this way? Might there not be a sensibility that accepts, indeed celebrates, the climate and weather conditions that exist? Could learning more about, and actively celebrating and enjoying the outdoor weather, serve to deepen our appreciation of, and commitments to, place? To be sure, these are some of the most important ways in which communities and regions vary, part of the inherent uniqueness of place. Partly this is about the attitude to the places we live. I'm reminded of the experience of outdoor strolling and eating in Copenhagen, Denmark. As Jan Gehl, one of the most passionate advocates of pedestrian culture reminds us, the gradual (though dramatic) conversion of much of central Copenhagen into a pedestrian district met with considerable nay-saying. People said "Danes are not Italians", he is fond of remembering. But of course the Strøget and pedestrian walking areas have proven them wrong, and the season of outdoor eating has been extending each year.  One interesting accommodation is that many restaurants now provide their customers with blankets (along with the menu). You are encouraged to enjoy sitting and eating outside. There are many reasons to encourage outdoor living and lifestyles (health, social benefits) but at the end of the day it's about enhancing quality of life. Australia is a country and part of the world where a similar appreciation of native weather and climate can be seen. Again it is partly a function of attitude and culture, and partly a matter of design. Heat and sun, often quite severe there, are parameters to work around. When we lived in Western Australia, writing the book Green Urbanism Down Under, my daughter and her primary school classmates spent much time outdoors, but with the critical provisos: No hat, no play!. The importance placed on being outside can be seen in many design and planning decisions. Virtually every park or outdoor area came equipped with a barbecue, and there was never hesitation about multiple families sharing these to make their lunch or dinner. In bigger ways, the climate became a key design element in city planning and city building. Brisbane's Queen Street Mall is good example: an open-aired pedestrian district with extensive shading, enticing residents to be outside, but effectively moderating the impacts of sun and heat. And through its CitySmart initiative, Brisbane is seeking to dramatically expand its tree canopy coverage and thus the natural shading and cooling benefits. Throughout Australia, moreover, there is a return to building and project designs that incorporate awnings and other low-tech shading devices, and windows that permit cross-ventilation and natural cooling. There is an element of delicious delight in the weather that often goes unappreciated. We are often so harried in our day-to-day existence that we fail to look up to see the remarkable moving show in the sky above us. We are not paying much attention to clouds and sky (daytime or nighttime), and we often lack the ability or even the terminology to speak about or share our observations. Living in Western Australia, we were treated to the most remarkably orange evening sky; unlike anything we had ever seen before. Even through the eyes of wonder-struck temporary visitors, we probably didn't give the sky its due; we were distracted by other things, as most of the permanent residents around us were. In what ways could we design and plan American communities with greater sensitivity to weather and climate? How could weather and climatic conditions become aspects of places and regions in which we live, and of which we are cognizant of and indeed proud about? What do you think? Leave us a comment. ——————– Timothy Beatley is the Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities at the University of Virginia. He co-authored Resilient Cities and Green Urbanism Down Under and is the author of the upcoming Planning for Coastal Resilience.