What’s your favourite local hotspot? Chances are you didn’t take any notice of the microclimate — you just knew that it felt good to be there. Examining what makes us feel comfortable in urban spaces could be the key to building more sustainable and vibrant spaces.
A light breeze, the warmth of the sun or a cool shady spot aren’t things we usually notice when we are enjoying ourselves. But if the atmosphere of a place feels stuffy or the sun is glaring down on you, the discomfort you feel is all you can think about.
JCU’s Dr Silvia Tavares is an urban design lecturer with a strong interest in urban comfort. Along with Associate Professor Lisa Law, she has been exploring how microclimates affect daily lives of people living in Cairns.
“I am passionate about climate and urban design,” Silvia says. “Microclimate refers to the climate — factors such as temperature, sun and shade — of a small area. This area could be a courtyard, street block or square.”
Silvia is exploring the links between Cairns’ urban culture, local lifestyles and its microclimates. She hopes the results will improve our understanding of urban living and expectations and how we can best plan for liveable and sustainable public open spaces in the Tropics.
“We are examining people’s relationships to places in the city and why they choose to go to certain places while avoiding others,” she says. “We are interested in the role of microclimates and place qualities on these choices. Different people will seek different things when it comes to comfort. For example, in New Zealand people placed a lot of value on beautiful and peaceful urban spaces, such as botanic gardens, and preferred to live in low density areas even if this meant being highly dependent on individual car-based modes of transportation. We want to know what those relationships, preferences and values are in Cairns.”
The research project delves into how participants form connections to locations and what values they place on public areas and spaces. Participants are also asked about their memories of places and what factors influenced how they feel about those places.
“People are not likely to remember places with good microclimate,” Silvia says. “But they will often remember places that don’t have good microclimate. They will remember that they were uncomfortable and why, and they will probably note that they avoided those places ever since.”
For users of public open spaces, being comfortable may be just about feeling warm and cosy. However, how people feel in these spaces could also have an impact on local businesses in the long-term.
“We want to see what impacts a pleasant or unpleasant microclimate have on the local economy,” Silvia says. “If people feel comfortable, does that mean they are frequenting certain places more and spending more on the shops and cafés there? Would that reflect on real estate values, for example?”
While research has been conducted on microclimates in locations that have extreme heat or extreme cold, Silvia says the Tropics has often been overlooked in this area.
“A tropical climate is considered to be very good, even great, but is there a specific way of designing for the Tropics?” she asks. “How do we create spaces for our unique conditions? How do we capture the breeze and protect ourselves from the sun? Cairns has the possibility to be a leader in this field, and JCU in particular is well-positioned due to its links to JCU Singapore.”
Some homes in Queensland show that, while we might not know it, we already design with climate in mind. Silvia celebrates the iconic ‘Queenslander’ as a design that brings people and climate together in a unique way. This compares to some current trends that might look good and represent power in some ways, but which are not appropriate for a tropical climate.
“There is a trend towards having glass buildings for big corporations and they are built the same way whether they are here or in Scandinavia,” she says. “They are built with a denial of the local climate. The design for a building here should be equally as unique as our climate, topography, and nature.”
If you live in Cairns and would like to take part in the research project, you can fill out a survey on Urban Comfort online.
If you are keen to help decide the design and appearance of cities and towns, check out JCU’s Major in Urban Environments and Landscape Design in the Bachelor of Environmental Practice, and the Bachelor of Planning. If you want to hone your skills in this field, find out about the Master of Tropical Urban and Regional Planning.