Photo of two people standing in the shade of a light pole

3 Ideas to Create Better Summer Cities

Summer’s recent resurgence has bummed me out since I’m not exactly a fan of hot weather, but the bright side is that it means this post (which I procrastinated on writing for about two months) can be published and still be somewhat timely even as the first signs of autumn appear. As global warming continues and accelerates, summers—especially here in Minnesota—are growing hotter and longer, making it ever more important to make sure our cities are safe and comfortable places to spend time outside. This is a life-or-death matter for people without shelter, given the numerous detrimental effects of heat and sun exposure, but hot-weather improvements are also beneficial for those who have more choices in where to spend time and how to get from place to place. Here are three ways I think we could make our collective summer experience just a bit more enjoyable.

  1. Provide more public water fountains!
    I recently went for a run in Saint Paul on a lovely Sunday morning. I was already dehydrated to start the run and it was hotter than I thought, which just exacerbated the hydration problem. I was 2 miles away from home and desperately thirsty when I realized there’s no reliable way to find the nearest source of water beyond walking into the nearest open restaurant and hoping they’d be willing to pour a glass of water for someone who needed it and didn’t have a way to actually buy anything. As I contemplated my options, I ended up running near a park which, fortunately, had a functioning water fountain, but the incident made me realize how challenging it can be to fulfill our very basic and universal need for water in the public realm, especially if you don’t have money on you for one reason or another. While there are several structural factors that need to be addressed to make sure everyone has access to clean water whenever they want it, one basic step toward this goal is installing more public water fountains across the city—not just in parks—and perhaps even creating an easily-accessible map, not unlike a bikeway or transit route map, that shows their locations.
  1. Build more shade.
    If you ever walk, bike, run, or otherwise spend time outside in the city on a hot day you’ve probably sought refuge from the sun and been faced with something of a challenge in finding it. There’s plenty of evidence that people want more shade when they’re walking through and hanging out in the city, but the supply is surprisingly limited. Wide roads, relatively short buildings, and diminutive street trees all contribute to this lack of respite from the heat. Given our ever-longer and -hotter summers, I believe a critical aspect of preparing for climate change is providing more shade in our cities with both trees and taller buildings.Bill Lindeke has waxed poetic about even the smallest puddles of shade gifted to us by street trees, and studies have shown that street trees can provide a cooling effect of up to 5 degrees Fahrenheit along a well-shaded street or up to 25 degrees under a tree compared to nearby blacktop. This is important because those temperature reductions can conserve resources spent on cooling buildings, save money, generally make outside a happier place to be, and even create a more socially equitable city; prolonged exposure to heat is really bad for you, and it disproportionately affects lower-income neighborhoods. Planting more trees, especially in less-wealthy areas, results in myriad health and financial benefits for everyone, but especially those who need it most. (As a bonus: trees can even make your wait for the bus feel shorter.)Everyone loves street trees and they’re the go-to shade solution, but I think the built environment can be shaped to provide more shade as well. An obvious aspect of this is building more bus shelters; LA is an outstanding example, where a dire lack of shade at bus stops leads to people aligning themselves in the narrow shade provided by telephone poles to find some relief from the blazing sun (pictured below). Of course, having such shelters need not be limited to bus stops; adding shade structures at parks, plazas and other public spaces would make it more comfortable to spend time outside, rain or shine.

    Photo of two people standing in the shade of a light pole

    Two people wait for the bus in the shade of a light pole (Sahra Sulaiman | Streetsblog LA)

    On a larger scale, one of the benefits of biking or walking through either downtown is that the skyscrapers provide some shade through parts of the day (though of course the extensive pavement largely counteracts that cooling effect) and it would be great if we had more tall buildings around the city to provide more shade. When such tall buildings are proposed, there’s opposition for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to: traffic concerns, fear that increased shade will ruin backyard gardens, dog whistle comments that multi-family buildings will ruin the character of the neighborhood, and so on. I propose that we put less emphasis on potential impacts of shade and start to think of the benefits when considering the height of new buildings, thus allowing for more shade and, in the future, better cities.

  1. Four words: theme park misting fans.
    If there’s one thing theme park designers have mastered—besides designing safe roller coasters, I hope—it’s making the theme park experience the least miserable it can be. One of the greatest reliefs of the theme park experience is the gigantic misting fans (pictured below) that they use to keep parkgoers cool on hot days. These shouldn’t be limited to just theme parks, though; as someone who typically gets around the cities by walking, running, or biking, nothing would be nicer than a series of these fans installed throughout the downtowns to keep all of our active and sustainable transportation users cool and refreshed.

    Photo of misting system used to cool amusement park visitors

    Two amusement park visitors use a misting system to cool off (Kool Fog)

Is there anything you’d like to see to make summer in the city more enjoyable? Please share in the comments!

About Alicia Valenti

Alicia is the chair of the 2021 board. A transplant to the Twin Cities who works on small and large transit projects across the Midwest, she likes to write for about bikes, winter and fun things to do on transit.