The heat is on for Western Sydney in more ways than one. Not only is the region expected to regularly hit 50 degrees in summer, it’s already done so. And yet it’s earmarked for major expansion of population.

With a new report Cooling Common Spaces in Densifying Urban Environments the NSW government’s land development agency Landcom and university partners have looked to a 70s era guru of architecture and planning Christopher Alexander who inspired the New Urbanist movement, to offer some solutions.

The collaboration will soon release a Cooling the Commons pattern deck, through a new website to maximise cooling opportunities in urban spaces for planners, councils and communities across all stages of development.

According to director of sustainability and learning Lauren Kajewski, the report has confirmed what we all know: when it’s too hot outside many people retreat into private airconditioned environments. This has now become a design and social norm, she says.

That’s a problem for building community vibrancy, and this tendency to stay indoors instead of connecting in public places – Covid restraints notwithstanding – opens a need for greater focus on the connection between social practices and natural and built environments.

The report by Landcom, Western Sydney University and University of Technology Sydney, has focused on how to cultivate cooler “commons” or outdoor spaces that will draw people out of their airconditioned homes and other buildings.

“By ensuring larger tree canopies, temporary use of public space to maximise sun shade, better public accessibility of water such as taps and drinking fountains, and a greater focus on night-time uses of public space when the temperature is naturally cooler, engagement with commons can be amplified,” Kajewski says.

Kajewski said the development agency was already implementing some pattern solutions for cooling commons at its Macarthur Heights and Schofields projects and would look for more opportunities.

L–R: Alice Thompson, Rod Simpson, Jess Miller, Lauren Kajewski, Eugene Tan and Helen Papathanasiou at Tomorrowland 2019

But what’s meant by a cooling common?

The term “common” dates back to feudal Europe as a gathering place with equal access to resources and equal responsibilities shared by stakeholders, popularised by economist Garrett Hardin in “The Tragedy of the Commons.”

While Hardin may have coined the phrase, economists including Elinor Ostrom debunked his tragic claims and proved that people could share common resources with the right agreements and communication.

Today, a common can be just about anything: a public park, an open beach, a library or even the internet, a universally accessible resource for knowledge.

So how can commons factor into cooling down cities?

Instead of tackling the massive volume of private buildings in cities, commons offer a more community based approach, where responsibilities and access alike can be shared by a wider number of people. Everyone has equal right to cool space.

Instead of relying on new innovations in sustainable development and technology, the commons approach creates a more principle oriented framework to evaluate how cities are structured and how they can be made better or retrofitted.

A cool common, according to Landcom’s definition, must provide equal access to coolth, a pleasant, low temperature, where the terms of use and responsibilities are negotiated by the community. 

Establishing patterns with help from Christopher Alexander

The report’s pattern format is heavily inspired by architect and design theorist Christopher Alexander who authored A Pattern Language, analysing the recurring patterns in urban design that make up a city.

“The innovation in Alexander’s work is this insight into the connection between built form and social practices, which lends each of the patterns in the language both coherence and a loose, adaptable and transferable quality,” the report reads.

“The process of naming is also a way of defending certain patterns, for it becomes possible to discern how these are challenged or compromised by a changing city.”

By analysing existing patterns in common space, designers can determine which commons create unintentional micro climates, amplifying heat effects in sites, and how these old patterns can be adjusted to create more comfortable spaces.

The most noticeable of these old patterns can be found in building materials and design practices in the planning and delivery stages of construction projects.

A study of playground materials at Western Sydney University found that soft fall playground equipment, installed to prevent injuries, can heat up to 74 degrees, forcing kids off the playground once the sun rises on a hot day.

Instead of spending their playtime indoors, Landcom suggested adding more trees and investing in greener grass so that children can both play safely and learn more about nature.

Long term design plans however could include changing how playgrounds are designed, taking into account climate adaptability and integrating passive design strategies.

Old patterns can also include behavioral changes to adjust when and how people enjoy these common spaces including visiting parks at night.

Nighttime is an ideal time to visit outdoor spaces as it is cooler outside while offering a diverse range of activities such as star gazing, a habit discouraged by limited hours.

The Main Ridge Park in Sydney suburb Macarthur Heights features a nighttime art installation, the Gates of Light, which reflects colorful glass during the day and glows to mimic the heavens at night.

The most critical stage of Landcom’s Cooler Commons approach will rest on post delivery and how the community as a whole will engage with the space when developers have little to no influence.

What is urban heat and why does it matter?

Landcom’s report is built on the growing field of research into how conditions in urban settings will worsen as cities expand and the temperatures rise.

Densely packed cities trend towards warmer temperatures as vegetation is replaced by highly reflective buildings, combined with trapped anthropogenic emissions and low albedo construction all contribute to the urban heat island effect.

The effects of urban heat will only be further exacerbated in the future by rising global temperatures, droughts and extreme heatwaves combined with an exploding population.

Australia is already feeling the effects of climate change, and it’s only going to get worse, especially in major cities. Researchers predict Sydney and Melbourne could face up to 50 C temperatures by the mid century.

Cooler commons in practice

In November 2018, Landcom launched its case study, Macarthur Garden North, a new neighborhood in progress near Macarthur station.

To better scope out the framework’s practicality, Landcom offered two workshops at the site in collaboration with researchers from Western Sydney University and the University of Technology Sydney.

Students were tasked with designing new ways to redesign unconventional spaces as commons ranging from nighttime parks to high rise buildings based on the Macarthur North project and the pattern deck.

The second focused on the social aspects as to how residents would interact with a common space environment, opening up potential concerns over how responsibilities would be shared within the community.

The Macarthur Garden North project is aiming for Green Star Communities sustainability certification from the Green Building Council of Australia.

Cool commons have existed outside of Australia long before Landcom’s proposal.

Stuttgart, Germany has been studying urban climatology since the 1930s and is leading the effort against the urban heat island effect after land development blocked valuable air flow through the mountains.

Stuttgart’s green ventilation corridors allow cool air to flow in coordination with the city’s topography with bans on any potential obstructing construction and plenty of greenspace.

With Tina Perinotto

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  1. ,…..Landcom and university partners have looked to a 70s era guru of architecture and planning Christopher Alexander who inspired the New Urbanist movement, to offer some solutions. Yeah, half a century too late.