A Lack of Shade

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We inherit structures. Governments and policies. Cities and technologies. Little 18-month-old you didn’t look around and ask, “Are we really legislating coal power the right way?” You probably just ate your fruit snack and assumed that the world was perfectly designed. If there was a problem, you may have been led to believe, it was merely with your attitude.

As grown-ups, we realize how intensely most of humanity is just winging it. Our civilization is a result of that. Our rules and institutions were constructed by people who were comically certain of their correctness and virtue. While ideas are ephemeral, they can be transformed into structures. And the more material those structures are, the longer they live on.

Brits are, right now, cooking under the highest temperatures on record. Let’s put climate change aside for a moment and instead zoom in on urban design. Many British homes are sweltering because of a lack of insulation and/or shade. Britain’s rush to industrialization is blamed for the shoddy construction (”just burn more coal!”) but the spacing is a much wilder story that I only just learned about. It turns out that a couple of urban designers walked apart in a field until they could no longer see each other’s nipples through their shirts. That continues to be the distance used to space out many British homes. In case you’re wondering, it’s 70 ft (21 metres). That tells us three things:

  1. A single fit of Edwardian morality (referred to as a puckering) was codified into design standards that still exist—120 years later
  2. Practical realities, like sun and wind, were not considered or prioritized
  3. The designers, Unwin and Parker, had absolute eagle eyes for spotting nips

The wise plant trees—the shade of which will only be enjoyed by future generations.

—Paraphrased from Cicero

The structures of our environments and cultures make some actions easier and others harder. So, while a truly committed person can swim upstream against any one of these, it sure is easier when we can swim with the current. And if the current itself is a problem, we have to ask how we can reverse it. As another historical aside, the direction of the Chicago River was flipped in 1900.

Some prompts:

  • How far would work be from home (if at all)?
  • What kind of foods would be most convenient and accessible to you?
    • Where would those foods come from 7-11s or community gardens? The Frito Lay factory or local farms and skilled, caring chefs?
  • How would you travel? Mostly by car? Or by foot, bike, horse, etc?
  • What kinds of spaces would you most frequently travel through? The 401 or green and/or culturally-rich spaces?
  • Would there be more or less walking, climbing, and carrying as part of your daily activity requirements?
  • What percentage of the day would you be seated?
  • How well would your activities—and lighting—sync up with natural cycles of light and dark?
  • What kinds of social activities would be most accessible (and how often would they be oriented around physical activity, time outdoors, learning, or deep relaxation)?

That’s the fun part. The challenging—but worthwhile—bit is to figure out how to design this stuff in a way that doesn’t require a billion dollars, a century of innovation, or a fear of a nipply planet.

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