Over the course of our years at Postconsumers, we’ve talked a great deal about the relationship between mass consumerism and climate change (or global warming if you prefer the term). With this year’s massive droughts in the west and record temperatures in many parts of the country, we thought we’d take a look at an interesting way to possibly deal with the realities of a warming climate if civilization as we know it survives. While there’s nowhere in the world that won’t ultimately have to adjust to overall warmer (and possibly drier) temperatures in the next fifty years or so, areas where it’s already hot and dry will see the biggest impact. Yes, Phoenix, Las Vegas and other U.S. desert cities, we are looking at you! Recently, we read an article on a great way for these cities to begin to adjust to hotter and hotter temperatures while at the same time not contributing further to the fossil fuel and carbon footprint of America by just turning up the air conditioning.

Ancient Cities Used Natural Shade. Better for the Planet than AirCon!

Shade is obviously essential if you’re living in a hot climate city, but many of the aspects of urbanization that are “essential” in cities lead to major areas where shade creation is nearly impossible. For example, almost every contemporary urban desert city was built with the idea of being car-intensive. This means that streets and parking lanes dominate over larger pedestrian sidewalks or storefront areas. Because the pedestrian and storefront areas are smaller, less space exists to build natural shade generators, such as awnings or porches, and arcades don’t have space to develop. However, both a reduction in the car intensity of cities (which we’ll talk about below) as well as the need to create natural shade sources are ways in which ancient desert cities were actually better equipped to handle the heat of the environment. As contemporary desert cities look to become more livable while also dealing with the energy realities of artificially generated coolness, creating larger pedestrian areas and natural shade generators is a way the past can improve the present.

And, before you ask, trees are not the answer! Increasingly, pumping unnatural amounts of fresh water into desert environments will become untenable. Non-organic shade generators are the solution that the past clearly provides us.

Speaking of All of Those Cars…

Obviously, ancient desert cities were intentionally built to accommodate more compact and localized living since cars were, simply, not invented yet. While Americans (and many other nationalities) aren’t about to give up their cars and their sprawl any time soon, designing cities that get people out of their cars – both in the ways that ancient cities did and in more modernized ways – can make contemporary desert cities more viable (and sustainable) into the future. Creating more centralized pedestrian squares and centers is obviously one scenario, but sustainable (and space efficient) public transportation is another. Cut down on the cabs and buses and replace them with undergrounds (it’s cooler under there anyway) and light rails that don’t expand the size of roads at the cost of storefront areas. Not only do these changes mean more areas where shade generators can be created, but currently the exhaust, metal conductivity and kinetic energy of millions of individual cars running actually creates more heat in an already hot city. Reducing individual and bulky vehicles and returning both to pedestrian-oriented layouts as well as an emphasis on modern public transportation is a shift that contemporary desert cities will simply have to embrace and adopt in the coming century.

Courtyards. Simple and Effective.

Think of just about any picture, video or even re-creation you’ve seen of ancient desert cities (many of which still stand today) and you’ll notice one thing. They all have buildings that have courtyards in the middle. In a hot, desert climate, courtyards create multiple benefits. Firstly, they are a naturally shaded area for most of the day as the shade from one of the four surrounding walls creates sun-blocked areas. Secondly, they create natural ventilation and breeze flows for the rooms, apartments and quarters within the building. Of course, there are benefits to the courtyard structure beyond its climate benefits. Courtyards provide natural areas of socialization, and you know how passionate we are here about the idea of social time instead of screen time!

Appropriate and Realistic Landscaping

One thing you certainly will not see in most ancient desert cities are landscaping scenarios done with non-native vegetation or, even more inappropriately, lush green grass lawns that were maintained with a constant external water source. In the “have it all” attitude of the current era, most desert residents haven’t been willing to sacrifice golf course quality lawns for the advantages of living in a desert. Ancient ‘lawns’ and landscaped areas used native vegetation, rocks and sand. As the climate continues to heat and water becomes more of a premium, this native landscaping will not only have environmental advantages, it will have aesthetic ones. After all, a beautiful sandscape trumps dry, brown, dead grass any day. We, of course, encourage people to begin making this change now!

We were fascinated by the paper we read on incorporating ancient design into modern desert cities, and if you’d like to read the entire paper it can be found here on the Arizona State University website.

Did we miss a way that ancient designs can influence modern desert cities that you love and would like to share? Tell us about it on the social media channels below.

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