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!

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5 Responses to 3 Ideas to Create Better Summer Cities

  1. Steve Gjerdingen September 26, 2019 at 11:23 pm #

    I can think of a few ones I’d like to share in addition to the ones mentioned earlier:

    1) Provide better night life
    Seriously, it’s cooler weather-wise at night and I think cities could do a better job capitalizing on opportunities for some fun public events. Movies-in-the-Park or Concerts-in-the-Park is one way to accomplish this, which Minneapolis and St. Paul (and some suburbs) are already doing a good job of. I know that some cities actually do dance events as well in conjunction with live music. Has anyone ever thought about doing an evening Open Streets event?

    2) Campout events
    Some cities actually have special events in the summer where you can pay to camp in a city park. I know that Roseville does a campout event every year, and I also remember there being some type of campout by Fort Snelling. This sort of mixes well with the first idea, but when you have hot days, you have to take advantage of nice nights!

    3) Cooled public spaces
    Although I’m sure it’s expensive, it’s nice to have a few indoor public places that remain cool year round. I’ve been to free zoos in large cities while touring and some of them have terrible or non-existent air conditioning in their indoor spaces. I know everyone is looking to save a buck, but it’s nice having a room that stays 72 degrees even on the 4th of July. Maybe a local library or some other public space could help facilitate this?

  2. Alex Schieferdecker
    Alex Schieferdecker September 27, 2019 at 8:53 am #

    Amen to Options #1 and #2.

    I’ve heard anecdotally however that misting fans are absolutely impossible to maintain well and a huge money pit, so maybe those only on special occasions.

  3. Karl September 27, 2019 at 3:06 pm #

    Would love to see 1 & 2 implemented in the “Downtown Commons” on a more regular basis.

    It would also be cool to see Nicollet Mall used as a more active space when Hennepin construction is finished in the summer specifically on weekends that the Twins are at home (in 2020 that’s the Fri-Sun before both Memorial Day & Labor Day, 3 in June, 1 in July, 3 in August) or when there are events at the NFL stadium.

    When it comes to shade though, go big with the Singapore-style artificial trees!

  4. John Abraham
    John Abraham October 1, 2019 at 10:28 am #

    Really great, informative article. However be aware of the various weird, unintended consequences of proposing basic things like this (recall honorable Mayor Rybek and his $500K water fountain plan of over a decade ago, which I actually liked because it would have created beautiful and functional art and would be in line with your ideas in this article). https://www.mprnews.org/story/2008/07/24/papatola

    I have a some issues with your third idea, given that water is going to be an incredibly scarce resource the longer we as a society ignore the disastrous effects of climate shifts. But I can see where you are coming from in how it could create a better environment throughout the city.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller October 1, 2019 at 11:23 am #

      Not excited about misters, but Minneapolis water comes out of the river, which I don’t think is going to get any more scarce. It may well become more abundant.

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