The Sunny Sauna City

I toured the University of Michigan my junior year of high school, a two-day trip full of activities designed to entice prospective students. Within the first few hours, the tour guide confessed that they bask in over 300 cloudy days per year.

I knew their fine engineering program wasn’t right for me the moment her words slipped out.

Sad, because a phone call or web search could have sufficed, rather than a 16-hour drive. Funny, because I eventually found myself at a school in the center of Pennsylvania that saw as little sun. As they say, “Que sera.” So, after graduating, I moved to Colorful Colorado, drawn by the promise of a bright, sunny yellow.

This past summer, broiling in an apartment devoid of air conditioning, desiccating in a part of Denver seemingly devoid of rain, my sweat glands have regretted that move.

I won’t rant about the lack of architectural forethought when someone decided a long time ago to design security grates onto my building’s ground-level windows, which would open outward more than 2 inches if only there weren’t grates in the way. Or the decision to design the apartments along a central hallway, limiting each unit’s windows to one wall, rather than opening them to the adjacent (and unused) courtyard, thereby granting each apartment windows on at least 2 sides and, further, some manner of cross-ventilation…

I guess I did rant a bit.

Anyways, this past summer, my body cried whenever I had to travel anywhere. The heat inside was bad, but outside was worse, and the streets saw virtually no reprieve whatsoever from the sun. I’d find myself walking and biking through alleyways because their shade was the most comfortable place to be, despite the smell and overall lack of any human aesthetic or activity. Having to venture onto the sidewalks, into the street lanes, was like opening a door into a dry, deceptive sauna. The freshest coffee felt cool to my tongue after breathing that air.

Stopping to catch my breath, my thoughts would catch up. In urban theory classes, we’ve discussed what’s livable about cities, what leads to activity along their streetscapes, what makes them good places to be. Building our buildings to the sidewalks does more than generate mixed-use retail opportunities, it generates some easy shade from the sun. Still, with 3 travel lanes, 2 parking lanes, and wide sidewalks along a street, the sun has ample opportunity to break through and bake thoroughly any pedestrians unlucky enough to be strolling and sweating along.

Our cities are wide swaths of baking pavement in the summer. Oddly enough, the same wide streets can make winter unbearable, granting the wind vast channels to blow through and freeze us.

But how could the city be any better?

Densify and infill along the edges of inactive streets, creating narrower pedestrian ravines through our cities, imitating the feel of Old World city centers? Our wide car-centric right-of-ways preclude that – our city centers are built out around them, and there won’t be much quick change to either. Dot the sidewalks with deciduous trees that offer no protection in winter? Shelter our transit stops with canopies to shield us from rain? We hardly use transit.

We thrive on natural light, but we thrive on shade, too, and other protections from the elements. We thrive on activity, excitement. We’re increasingly told to embrace pedestrian lifestyles, to ditch the car whenever possible.

But all too often the openness and monotony of our urban form discourages us.

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