Four seasons in one day: creating a liveable city through microclimate design

Cashel Mall with research weather station on the foreground
Cashel Mall with research weather station on the foreground

This article (without the images) was originally published at the Lincoln University news website.

Comfortable, pleasant and lively city streets attract people, and people mean better business. If the rebuilt Central City is to attract people, then architects and urban designers must consider how to make the streets and spaces not only ‘pedestrian-friendly’ but also ‘microclimate-friendly’.  It will be too late to think about this once the buildings along the streets have been approved, the concrete poured, and the sheet glass fixed.

The rebuild of the Central City is underway – we have a blueprint, developers are releasing plans for new projects, a ‘pedestrian-friendly’ transport plan has been released, and the City Council is committed to realising the collective vision of a liveable city that was expressed through ‘Share an Idea’. But have we considered how to make attractive public streets and spaces in a city where there can be four seasons in one day?

Cantabrians are very aware of how local patterns of wind, shelter, sun and shade shape the way we use the city. Before the earthquakes, favoured locations such as the west facing ‘strip’ on Oxford Terrace attracted crowds willing to linger and enjoy being outdoors. These were prime sites for cafes and street life. Other parts of the CBD – such as Hereford Street – were known to be windy and shady, and were seen as places to hurry through. So what are some of the key lessons? Are the proposals for the rebuild taking this local knowledge about the city and its climate sufficiently into account?

I have interviewed 86 Christchurch residents over 18 months to find out how they adapt to the local microclimate, what types of urban settings they find most attractive and comfortable, and how to ensure that the new city achieves the qualities we most enjoy. Interestingly, I found that Cantabrians young and old relate the way they use the city to our distinctive regional lifestyle. We think of ourselves as outdoor people, and given the choice will spend a notable portion of our time outdoors in urban spaces. But we are sensitive to the type of setting and the urban comfort it offers, as one interviewee explained: “quality of life does include those things of having a bit of space, have a bit [sic] of peace and quiet when you want it.”

On a typical sunny but windy day, people favour places sheltered from the easterly, where the height and location of buildings allows sunlight into the street, as another interviewee explained: “So in [sic] a cold winter’s day, you can still sit outside in the sun if there’s no wind and it is sheltered and in the sunshine.”

Young people are least concerned about microclimate – they are most interested in being in places where ‘the action is’ and being close to other people. One young person explained that on an overcast cool and breezy day, “If there wasn’t many people [in the city], maybe I wouldn’t have come… having people there makes me feel not as bad [about] the weather.”

By contrast, I found that older people and families look for places with greenery and sheltered places to sit where they can soak up the atmosphere without necessarily being part of the crowd. They actively avoid the colder and windier streets and search for peaceful environments, as explained: “As we’ve got older we go to the quieter places, so we can actually talk. We are not going so much to the loud places with all those good looking people anymore. We just want somewhere to sit down.”

So given these insights how well are the proposals for the Central City shaping up to deliver attractive urban streets and spaces? At first glance, the local climate appears to have been an afterthought. Images in the media of proposed developments are dominated by hard edged buildings, bare open paved areas and narrow alleys. The Central City Blueprint includes a green frame, but there is doubt over how ‘green’ this will be and what type of landscape it will provide at the street level.

One of the most striking aspects of the transitional stage of the recovery has been the success of the Re:START in drawing people into the broken city. According to the people I interviewed, the feature that makes Re:START most appealing has been the way the containers create sheltered courtyards, with all day sun, and attractive planting and meeting areas. Will the rebuilt Cashel Street be as attractive to people?  Will there be equally sheltered, sunny and colourful courtyards in the new precincts and private developments? Have the designers and developers maximised on sun and shade and shelter?

Christchurch needs every help it can get to attract people back in from the suburban centres with the air conditioned malls. It is vital that knowledge about how Cantabrians respond to our microclimate is used to make a new Central City that is attractive to local people, with interesting, green, sunny and sheltered streets and open spaces designed for all ages and lifestyles.


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