Meteorology and the City

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How much does the climate affect your perception of the area you live and work in? Has UK snow left you frustrated, unable to get anywhere, vulnerable and exposed – or are you joyfully rediscovering your environment?

Footbridge across the railway tracks, Stirling

My colleague Stephen is trying out the carefree, car-free life; ditching car ownership in favour of ‘Walkability’ and public transport. (You can check his progress over on the External Works blog, or follow @ExternalWorks on Twitter.)

I normally drive to the office, but the wintry weather has left my car nestling deep in a snow-mound, so I’m letting it hibernate for a while. I left the office yesterday evening after a record-breaking snowfall, unsure whether I’d be able to get a train or bus, or if I’d be walking the ten miles home. Feeling intrepid (though looking ridiculous in all my layers of clothing), I departed in a flurry of snow to an echo of Captain Oates’ “I may be some time”.

As it happened, the walk proved very enjoyable. There were hardly any cars, so people were crunching through snow in the middle of the normally forbidding roads. The snow had changed the quality of light and sound, and softened the shapes of the urban environment.

Stirling, softened by snow

On the Aesthetics of Joy blog – exploring the intersection between design and positive emotion – Ingrid Fetell talks about the transformative power of snow:

Snow is itself a shapeshifter, first light, then heavy; small, then large. It is moldable, a substrate for transient sculpture, be it snowman or snowangel, or merely a snowweapon in the form of an icicle or a ball. But more significant is what snow does to what’s around it. In this sense, snow is an intrusion, a new element that transforms its context by its presence. Snow’s intrusion into a city is all-encompassing. Snow’s color and texture redefine the setting. Its volume and density redefine the action. It blankets, it bleaches, and it slows. Snow changes our behavior; it gives us permission to be more playful.

Weather has a more permanent effect on urban design, too. In June 2011, the Manchester Architecture Research Centre and the Centre for the History of Science Technology and Medicine are holding a workshop called City weathers: meteorology and urban design 1950–2010. Here is an extract from the call for papers:

The topic of this ESRC-sponsored workshop is the application of climatological and meteorological knowledge in city planning. Buildings, roads and landscape affect urban temperature, wind, rain and air quality, which in turn affect human comfort, health and security.

The nexus between design and microclimate was historically recognised in oriental feng shue and western traditions of Vitruvianism and sanitarianism. Through the ages decisions on urban layout have taken account of topography, orientation, the weathercock and the windrose.

During the late twentieth century, a few cities – mostly German – continued to incorporate meteorological factors into town plans. As the scientific state-of-the-art became more sophisticated, so did its potential contribution to physical planning. Scientists saw urban climatology as an applied science and lobbied for its relevance through policy networks such as World Meteorological Organisation and World Health Organisation. But in most cities the application was confined to the scale of individual buildings, and external environments were designed and modified without regard to climatic consequences.

Since 2000 anthropogenic changes at the global scale have revived interest in the ability of urban areas to shape their own weather outcomes through intelligent design. Urban climatology and biometeorology have made significant advances in measurement and analysis of urban heat island processes. At last urban climatology is pushing at an open door, and there is growing interest in precedents and best practice.

In the meantime, why not temporarily transform the exterior lighting in your area by making a snølykt?

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