A Placemaking Journal
Rain: A great judge of neighbourhood character
Heading to the Wilmington, North Carolina region this week, I’m excited about seeing a city that’s one of my favourite running buddies. Last week, I was enjoying a run in Winnipeg as well, when someone pointed out, “But it’s raining.” I had barely noticed since this satisfyingly walkable neighbourhood dares people to live outdoors.
Facebook handily reminded me that this time last year, I was in Venice, where it was resolutely rainy. Perhaps Venice is not the best comparison for “mere mortal” cities, as the idyllic urbanism tends to romanticize the rain. The weather certainly didn’t stop the millions of tourists who had come just to walk the streets.
My fellow urbanist, Fenno Hoffman, made some important observations: “It’s funny how in walkable cities, I don’t notice the weather nearly as much as I do in the suburbs. Dealing with cars in bad weather, even in heavy rain, is a complete pain. In the city, I just grab an umbrella and proceed. There’s none of that awkward climbing in and out of cars, getting soaked. There are no worries about snow tires, or winter crashes, or any of that. Weather changes everything in cars, and very little on foot. Something about that is counterintuitive.”
“I remember having my morning doppio in a small quiet piazetta, early in the morning, and listening to the roar of commuters going to work. I could hear the sound of Italian leather shoes clicking on the paving stones for blocks in every direction. The white noise of soles clicking. The soul of soles. You can’t experience that sound anywhere else. Beautiful.” Fenno’s words still resonate a year later. And yes, I asked his permission to post his Facebook comments.
What makes neighbourhood character strong and compelling enough to tempt us to move through it on foot even in the rain? How do walkable places mitigate hot, cold, wet, and snowy weather?
The neighbourhood lets you be noncommittal. Small block perimeters give you many choices about how you’re going to get from one place to another, and supports you when you decide to turn back and call it a day. The fine-grained street network with loads of street connections makes it easy to choose “just one more block.”
The neighbourhood doesn’t make you go the extra mile. All of your daily needs can be found within a five-minute walk, which defines one neighbourhood. Even in the rain works out to about a quarter mile in the flatlands. Larger regional centers form where the edges of more intense neighbourhoods join together.
The neighbourhood lets you play, learn, and worship as well as live and work. Instead of having monocultures of single-use pods, rain-loving neighbourhoods nurture a mixture of compatible uses. Civic uses anchor with squares, plazas, and playgrounds as well as schools, museums, community centres and places of worship.
An increasing number of studies have been pointing out that the excessive sitting of our current lifestyle is as dangerous as smoking. Sitting is the new smoking. However, the Surgeon General recently adding his voice to that warning with his Step It Up call to action has made walking in the rain more than just a fun, romantic pastime.
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