(09:27)Sowing New Solutions
So what do solutions look like? The good news is, Jeremy says the data is telling such a clear story, that there’s plenty of things we could do NOW to help mitigate the impact of the urban heat island. As in today and tomorrow.
“Small scale interventions like bus stops, shade structures, or any sort of passive cooling system like that, shading pedestrian corridors, green alleyways. Those are sorts of things that take very little investment necessarily compared to some of the other bigger scale things.”
It’s all part of an effort Jeremy calls “Throwing Shade in RVA” - including work with an organization called Groundwork RVA that works with youth in Richmond, Virginia to take a hands-on approach to enhancing greenspace in the city.
“And then there's really the long-term 20 year horizon kinds of things like tree canopy planting campaigns here in Richmond, we're giving away 10,000 trees over the next few weeks. But realistically, to change our urban canopy percentage, we need 100 times that or more over the next few decades to really make an impact on our urban canopy. There's also then, on the flip side of planting new trees, is protecting the big ones. It turns out that we get a lot more bang for our buck, maintaining the largest and sturdiest and healthiest trees.”
I can see it now. Cities with downtown skyscrapers outlined in bushy green hats from the abundant rooftop gardens, sidewalks painted all different colors and bordered with native plants and trees, alleyways that serve as both community gathering spots and bike paths, large trees between street lights and midrises. And urban tree canopies and parks around every corner. That doesn’t sound too bad!
(11:20) Answers from Every Angle
Jeremy also talks about how even seemingly small design decisions make a tremendous difference: Like designing taller buildings on the southern side of streets that run.
East - West. The buildings cast more shade on the streets below, helping to cool streets during heat waves. In talking through the myriad of solutions to both climate change and specifically the urban heat island effect, Jeremy underscored that there will never be any single solution to these problems.
“There's no silver bullet, it's a silver buckshot.” - Dr. Jeremy Hoffman
He envisions a community oriented approach, one that gives people pride, ownership and opportunity in creating more green space in their communities.
“That feeling of stewardship and wanting to safeguard something. And if your voice and your communities' history is being reflected back by the placemaking that's going on, you're going to be more willing to take care of it and to really Marshall your community around it. It's really something that the urban planning community is really starting to come around to much more publicly than before.”
(12:25) COVID as a Catalyst
While it’s hard to call it a silver lining, Jeremy did say the pandemic does seem to have magnified the importance of parks and green spaces, even if immediately for more selfish “I have nowhere else to go” reasons.
“I'm thrilled that people are starting to see parks and open spaces and green spaces with a new, "We need this, I want this in my life. We need to, if I don't have that space in my living area, how do I move closer to a park?" said Jeremy,
"Why are parks really important? Well, they're virtually like a climate change sponge. They work to absorb stormwater. So it's not only heat that's getting more intense, but also if that rainiest rain events are becoming the add a couple more buckets of water to each rain event. And so parks can be used as an infrastructural investment for our sewer systems.
So it's this really fascinating thing when you start to see people kind of connect the dots between the park that they like and the history of their city and the future of their city, because of climate change. If parks can be where we're going to start having those conversations like, "Yes, I'm on board. It's about time. Let's get started. We got a lot of work to do."
(13:21) Designing for the Whole Human
When we think about “human-centered” design, the impact of urban design choices on our mental health is unavoidable. Of course designing for “sustainability” should be focused on our viability in the future - but let’s not ignore our sanity and overall wellness in the present. In short, nature keeps us sane and we shouldn’t get too far from it.
“Today, cities are starting to use happiness framework to look at policies, neighborhoods, and communities to create places to help us all flourish or thrive”.
Paulina is the former Executive Director of the San Diego Green Building Council and current program manager for c40 cities. Paula led a green alley project in Los Angeles, where the city was looking at converting 250 acres into green alleys.
Paulina describes why, “In most cities, alleys are the most underutilized places. They lack lighting infrastructure, storm water or any paving infrastructure, and often serve as a perfect breeding ground for crime and environmental degradation.”
Through community workshops, interviews, and surveys, the city sourced ideas directly from citizens about how to reimagine alley spaces. Pairing those ideas with environmental research yielded extraordinary new ideas, many of which have been implemented in San Diego. Ideas included closing alleys completely to car traffic, creating permeable spaces that helped manage stormwater, creating spaces for kids to play safely, and adding native plants.
As Paulina explained, “The whole project covers 18 square miles, and touches upon 350,000 residents. It is designed to work as a network, and work in sync with bike lanes, sidewalks, and streets to create connectivity in the neighborhood, encourage people to walk or bike more, and get them out of their cars."
(15:14) Why Community Engagement is so Critical
Paulina emphasizes the absolute necessity of community involvement, and also that creativity is paramount to reimagining spaces that help us reach a greater sense of balance. “So close your eyes for a moment, take a deep breath in, and imagine taking your blissful morning yoga class, in a wastewater management treatment facility.”
She shows her audience a picture of a few people doing yoga. The room has massive windows overlooking a green field, with a tree canopy in the horizon. Sunlight drenches the room and contrary to your expectation of a wastewater treatment facility, it’s the Pinterest perfect vision of zen.
This is a real place. The Omega Center for sustainable living in Rhinebeck, New York is a gorgeous facility that I would happily live at, host a luncheon at, take a yoga class at, renew my wedding vows. I would pay an admission fee to go here, and yet, again - it’s primary purpose is to process and clean the filthiest water a city has to offer.
Impressively, the facility treats water for 119 surrounding facilities from toilets, showers, and sinks. The building is surrounded with green space, and inside inspired by the natural environment. Paulina bridges environmental sustainability with the mental health benefits of facilities like this.
“The Omega center is a perfect example of a building that creates restorative value to both people inside as well as the earth.”
Paulina’s optimism for the future is best concluded, “We all shape our built environment, and return it shapes us. So let’s use that opportunity to create happier lives, in happier cities for everyone.” - Paulina Lis