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Urban design as a climate mitigation measure

26 of July '22

In defining the main areas for the discussion of low-carbon cities, three main themes should be noted. First, at the scale of the user's immediate environment, the way in which individual urban spaces are organized can either encourage or prevent certain behaviors, and these behaviors can in turn lead to increased or reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Such elements include the organization of streets, which directly affects the choice of a particular mode of transportation, as well as the psychology of transportation behavior. The appearance of streets through the information layer shapes user behavior. For example, when driving a car, we speed up or slow down depending on the width of the roadway, the height of curbs, the presence of safety features not only within the lane itself, but also along the accompanying facilities. This can either encourage the choice of a particular mode of transportation or prompt us to choose another method. The presence of comfortable, shaded sidewalks along interesting, activity-filled storefronts located in attractive buildings promotes walking. Conversely, dull facades with no connection to the street space, a narrow sidewalk cluttered with cars and inconvenient, or the offset of buildings and the immediate vicinity of heated and windy sprawling parking areas will cause us to avoid walking. At the same time, by choosing appropriate isolation from traffic, providing comfortable walking and shade, we have the chance to stimulate or limit pedestrian mobility. Similarly, the presence of a continuous system of convenient bicycle paths makes us all the more willing to choose this mode of transportation. The role of urban design cannot be overestimated especially for shaping the comfort of users of streets and squares.

Similarly, the organization of urban space, understood as the arrangement of various elements, is directly reflected in the decisions made by individuals. In a situation where various functions are scattered across the city, located at considerable distances, for example, offices are located on the outskirts of the city, we are more likely to get there by our own car, as otherwise it may not be possible. On the other hand, if the same institutions are located in the center, in the right environment, in the context of properly arranged squares, they will not only gain stature and become more attractive and respectable, but also allow us to use them on foot, thus creating attractive social spaces. So paying attention to how residents will use urban space as a result of a specific project is insanely important.

The second extremely important element that directly affects the formation of a climate-resilient city is greenery. Its presence is a direct derivative of the selection of appropriate proportions of open areas and built-up areas, so as to simultaneously ensure adequate population density for the implementation of various urban services and access to open, green areas. At the same time, the role of urban greenery, so-called green infrastructure, along with the use of watercourses and reservoirs, i.e. blue infrastructure, is now defined as far more utilitarian than in the past. According to the perspective of so-called ecosystem services, we use urban greenery to meet our needs for the provision of various products, for temperature regulation, water retention, and plant pollination. In addition, we talk about cultural services, a group that includes such services as recreation, the provision of aesthetic or spiritual values. It has been proven that access to greenery, even that understood as trees seen from a window, has a very positive effect on our well-being and mental health. Greenery also serves many other functions, including water retention or lowering the temperature in the city, i.e. reducing the urban heat island. Today we are talking about Water Sensitive Urban Design solutions or sponge cities, which have become very popular in China and the United States. The latter make use of natural bodies of water, including marshes, to provide areas for recreation and sometimes cultivation. The goal of such solutions is not to damage existing water relations.

Bottom line: there is a growing understanding that planning against the rules of natural natural systems leads to significant costs of exploiting those systems. The current processes of urbanization are leading to a situation where a limited resource such as the Earth's surface increasingly needs to be valued. Under current conditions, we can no longer freely dispose of land. We must begin to care for it to a much greater extent than before, as natural land resources are shrinking. Here we come to the fundamental issue of planning on a regional scale, where technology is also becoming an important element. Already Patrick Geddes and his immediate successors, including Lewis Mumford, have spoken of so-called neo-technological inventions that will significantly affect the organization and form of urban structures. Their prediction has come true; indeed, we are now experiencing a far-reaching dispersion of development, which has far-reaching consequences and greatly increases the consumption of the resources at our disposal, including affecting the dangers of increasing the risk of climate change due to energy demands and greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, the same authors called for regional-scale planning efforts to limit the free expansion of urbanization and leave natural areas as natural working lands, including for food production. With contemporaries, the same land will be valuable to us as a site for renewable energy production. With fossil fuel resources running out, we should increasingly pay attention to the economical disposal of raw materials. In this context, there is much talk about non-renewable energy resources, while the rational management of a limited asset such as land still requires increased attention. In particular, this applies to areas still in their natural state, green fields, whose anthropomorphic transformation has not yet occurred. Such areas definitely need protection, including within the administrative boundaries of cities.

Małgorzata Hanzl

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