Time: a four dimensional approach to urban design

Article By:

Principal | Urban Designer

What can be measured and treasured in urban design but never can be seen? Time.

Growing up in a high-density and high-rise country like Singapore, I experienced a culture where time and space are precious and scarce commodities. Given the nation’s limited size, lack of natural resources and highly competitive ethos, the factors of time and space are intimately related in many of the planning decisions for the urban environment.

One of these concepts is transit-oriented developments (TODs), which integrate mass rapid transit (MRT) and vertical mixed-use (VMU) town centers. The Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) describes TOD as a development that “links transportation and land use—providing people with maximum choice in how to get around by intensifying activities near transit nodes with high-quality public space.” Fun Fact: Singaporeans have the fastest walking speed with an average of 6.15 kilometers per hour (18 meters in 10.55 seconds)!

Obviously, not every city shares the same desire for optimal [commuting] speed or land-use intensity, but the application of “time” as a fourth dimension has often been explored in urban spaces. In this article, I shall discuss the notion of “time” as a practical consideration in urban design.

What is the notion of "time"

As Kevin Lynch, one of my favorite authors on urban planning, wrote, “we experience the passage of time in the urban environment in two ways: through ‘rhythmic repetition’, [which includes] ‘the heartbeat, breathing, sleeping and waking, hunger, the cycles of the sun and moon, the seasons, waves, tides, clocks’; and through ‘progressive and irreversible change’ [like] ‘growth and decay, not recurrence but alteration’.” Lynch’s observation of time in the urban environment is a constant reminder that we live in time places. Inspired by some of his ideas, below are five time-related design categories:

  1. Diurnal
  2. Seasonal
  3. Generational
  4. Natural
  5. Eventual

I. Diurnal

As a result of the 24-hour circadian cycle that results from the Earth’s rotation, the ways we perceive and use the urban environment change at different times of the day and night. This affects our biological cycles of sleeping, waking, working, playing, learning, commuting, eating, and so on. The understanding of this basic cycle is significant to how we shape our complete community lifestyle, concerning live, work, play, learn, and so on. This is even more crucial in urban design because understanding the behavioral patterns associated with these cyclical activities can be beneficial to how we program and detail urban spaces.

By the same token of time structures, the 24-hour society is created where there is now an increase and intensification of activities patterns through the time of night. This usually means more artificial lighting, electrical devices that bridge different time-zones and crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) associated with the evening economy. Culturally, it can be an exciting place, so long as the planning of any 24-hour city also carefully considers the social well-being of its people, and the [round-the-clock] toll on its infrastructure and ecological systems.

II. Seasonal

The passing of each year brings a marked change in seasonal weather and human activities. Seasonal attributes may vary by location, but the cycles of human activities (in the case of North American cities) are generally grounded in the changing seasons:

“During the winter in northern temperature climates, for example, even at noon, the sun is low in the sky. Days are typically grey, wet, windy and cold. People may use external space only when necessary. In the spring, leaves start to appear on trees, and people begin to liner in urban spaces, enjoying the warmth of the sun. In summer, the trees are in full leaf, the sun is high in the sky, days are long and light, and people opt to stay longer in urban spaces. In the autumn, the leaves turn reds and browns and eventually fall from the trees. People may linger in urban spaces to enjoy the last warmth of the sun before the onset of winter.”

For example, winter is a core seasonal identity of most Canadian cities. Ensuring winter design principles means that cities can realize the full return on capital investments, developments and public infrastructure projects year-round and not merely for summer conditions. The City of Edmonton, for instance, establishes winter design policies that support five winter design principles:

  1. Incorporate design strategies to block wind, mainly prevailing winds and downdraft.
  2. Maximize exposure to sunshine through orientation and design
  3. Use color to enliven the winter scape
  4. Create visual interest with light, while being mindful of intensity, spread, contrast and color
  5. Design and provide the infrastructure that supports the desired winter life and improves comfort and access in cold weather

In Winnipeg, a project that demonstrates the seasonal attributes is Bokeh at Kildonan Park Duck Pond where Nadi Group worked alongside a local artist to create an immersive and dreamy lighting experience for park-goers and ice skaters in the wintertime. “Given that we expected park-goers to experience our installation during Winnipeg’s dark winter months, we used bright colors in our design to disrupt the park’s white winter canvas, creating a vibrant and animated environment for people to skate and feel ‘happy’ within.”

III. Generational

Inspired by the (traditional) multi-generational community model, policymakers are starting to rethink social and urban planning to promote multi-generational housing and aging-in-place (a term used to describe a person living in the residence of their choice for as long as they are able to) concepts. In my other article Under One Roof: Multi-generational households, I discussed how secondary and laneway suites can shape a thriving community that meets the needs of generations-from baby boomers to millennials.

According to a 2017 survey, 22% of Canadians had at last least one disability, with 38% being seniors aged 65 and over. In terms of disability type, 42% are related to pain, flexibility, mobility and mental health. Every household will likely experience, within its lifetime, at least one family member who require some level of assistive technology (for mobility, accessibility, etc.). One solution is the VisitAble Housing”, which is the concept of designing and building homes with easy access on the main level for everyone and for visitors of all ages and mobility. Other features include:

  1. One level, no-step entrance
  2. Wider doorways and hallways
  3. Wheelchair accessible bathroom on the main level

Even without mobility and accessibility needs, cities can cater to the aging population by designing outdoor gyms and play areas for older generations to improve fitness and well-being. "Play’s not just for kids" anymore and by understanding the long-term generational needs of families, we can ensure well-used public spaces and communities that possess longevity.

IV. Natural

If we now look at a much longer duration, the natural environment has an endearing way of coping over time (in the absence of human pollution and the irreversible effects of specific industries). When flora and fauna die and decompose, they release chemicals in their elemental state, where they remain in the soil to become the nutrients used by plants to grow into a healthy forest, meadow field, river vegetation and so on. Nothing gets wasted in nature, and what might be the waste of one living thing is turned into the life-giving nutrients of another.

In the realm of the built environment, it is typically a sociological process by which a previously functioning city falls into disrepair due to deinstitutionalization, depopulation, economic recession, abandoned buildings and infrastructure, high unemployment, crime, and so on. Often referred to as urban decay or greyfield (economically obsolescent, outdated, failing) sites, it is one of the most challenging tasks the city officials and building sector face today. This is why urban planners and environmental designers are usually concerned with the long-term effects of growth and decay that alter the current forms and functions of developments and the city. For adaptive re-use projects, the engagement of a multi-disciplinary team of planning and architectural/engineering professionals will provide a balanced assessment of any old buildings or structures. Perhaps we can learn from natural ecosystems when we design our urban environments?

V. Eventual

What about planning for the unpredictable and unknown future? What comes to mind is the concept of scenario planning, which is essentially a decision-making process that helps urban planners navigate the uncertainty of the future in the short and long term. According to the American Planning Association, “a scenario planning process begins by scanning the current reality, projected forecasts, and influential internal and external factors to produce a set of plausible potential futures (i.e., scenarios). It then develops a series of initiatives, projects, and policies (i.e., tactics) that may help support a preferred scenario, a component of a scenario, multiple scenarios, or all scenarios. Indicators that a scenario component is likely to occur (i.e., tipping points or triggers) may be established to alert planners that the likelihood of a scenario becoming a reality is higher, prompting them to take action on appropriate tactics such as allocating funding and moving into implementation.”

In conclusion

In my article, How can we transcend urban resilience to make our cities safer?, I mentioned three distinct threats: climate change, natural disasters and terrorism, and touched on how most cities have some level of risk management planning and social resilience programs in place. On the other spectrum, there is the future uncertainty of what happens to the city after a significant historical or global event such as post-war reconstruction, the birth of a new independence nation, post-elections, the Olympics, the F1 race—to name a few. In many of these cases, time (history) can be a useful ally in design.

Pariser Platz remains one of my favorite time places as a result of a post-war urban design intervention. After the reunification of Berlin in 1989, and the dismantling of the wall that ran through it dividing East and West Berlin, the restoration of this site, together with 11 parcels of land and the Brandenburg Gate, was subject to the planning of [Berlin] Senate Department of Urban Development and individual city districts. The result was a set of regulatory controls and architectural design guidelines that portray a robust civic image that is also rooted in tradition.

As Jon Lang writes in Urban Design: A typology of procedures and products, “One of the regulations of the Berlin Municipal Government is that 20% of any new development in the city must be devoted to housing. The purpose is to have some life in every precinct all day and to have streets and open spaces under natural surveillance (i.e. to ‘have eyes on the street’). The aesthetic goal for Pariser Platz was to have buildings that reflected the architecture of Berlin. The design guidelines (of the 1999 Development Plan I-200) specified that buildings were to be no more than 22-meters in height, sandstone range in color corresponding to the Brandenburg Gate, and with no more than 50% glazed area on the façade, all in keeping with Berlin traditions. They also have to be built to the property line with no setbacks and have their lower facades (4-6 metres from the ground) visually differentiated from the floors above. The goal was to prevent the square from becoming a ‘playground’ for a set of haphazard architectural ideas. Most of the buildings have complied with the regulations in a direct manner.”

What is your favorite urban design-inspired time place?

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