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How do You Design Outdoor Spaces for Inclement Weather?

Jing’An Temple, across West Nanjing Road from the lobby of Wheelock Square. Image © Gensler

On Thursday morning, I woke up and looked outside. It was cold and overcast. A freezing wind drove the rain sideways. “Perfect,” I thought to myself. “What a wonderful day for a walk!”

Later that afternoon, I gathered with 20 other urban enthusiasts, including four of my Gensler Shanghai colleagues, to examine a series of outdoor spaces strung between the office towers and shopping podia along West Nanjing Road. We were the Shanghai contingent of the Winter Spaces Walking Tour, organized by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH). The Winter Spaces Walking Tours took place in seven different northern hemisphere cities simultaneously at 3:00 pm local time. As a member of a CTBUH Urban working committee, I was charged with organizing the walking tour in Shanghai, the first of the seven cities in which the 3:00 pm start time fell.

The purpose of the walking tours was to examine outdoor space at the base of tall buildings to help build an understanding of how such spaces function in inclement weather. For example, we wanted to learn the effect that wind has on an outdoor space. Our tour was joined by Dr. Xiangdong Du, Technical Director in the Shanghai office of RWDI Consulting Engineers, a firm that has worked with Gensler on a number of projects including the Shanghai Tower. Our tour also examined ways in which outdoor plazas or public spaces are shielded from the rain—or in many cases not. Needless to say these spaces aren’t expected to be used in winter to the degree that they are in fairer weather seasons. However, many outdoor spaces serve as primary pedestrian routes to and from work, home, and/or shopping destinations no matter the forecast. Therefore the greater the degree to which these places can be designed to provide adequate pedestrian comfort for the greatest portion of the year, the more useful the spaces will be as vital components of a neighborhood or district.

The view into a portion of Jing’An Park from West Nanjing Road. Image © Gensler

One might wonder, why does all this matter? Recently, CTBUH formed the Urban Habitat/Urban Design Committee to focus on the latter part of their name. As a committee, we will author a new technical guide that will be published by CTBUH in 2016 and is tentatively titled Urban Spaces Surrounding Tall Buildings. The walking tours gathered preliminary information about numerous outdoor public spaces in Vancouver, Toronto, and Ottawa, Canada; Chicago and New York in the U.S.; London, England; and, Shanghai, China. In some of these cities last Thursday, the weather provided even greater challenges than we faced in Shanghai.

For our Shanghai contingent, we were able to tweet photos (#ctbuh7cities) of our rainy tour while participants in other cities were still hours away from launching off into their own winter weather. Many types of weather conditions were prevalent in the seven cities that day and this helped generate a lot of ideas for the public realm. We discussed many design solutions to combat winter weather. From Shanghai to Chicago to London (and all the cities in between) we saw cold weather, somewhat milder temperatures, snow, rain and a lot of wind. We visited small courtyards, outdoor seating areas—some with heat—passageways, interior refuge corridors that took us past retail stores and connected to outdoor plazas. In short, we endured a variety of winter conditions while experiencing a range of public exterior space typologies.

As the committee moves forward with our drafting of the forthcoming technical guide, these issues and their potential design solutions will provide a wealth of information and material for the book.

Looking through the lobby of Tower 2 at Plaza 66, to a traditional Shanghai lilong neighborhood north of the site. Image © Gensler

And, with publication of the technical guide still many seasons off—who knows—we may need to develop a Summer Spaces Walking Tour to make sure we are covering that end of the spectrum as well!

Tom Ford is the Community-1 Studio Leader in the Shanghai office and is the Asia Region PUD Practice Area Leader. Contact him at tom_ford@gensler.com.

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