Cartagena, Colombia – Shade: The Ultimate Magistrate of Urban Space in Tropical Cities

November 2014 – In tropical countries where the sun’s radiance is most intense, shade becomes a precious commodity, coveted by all who are below it. Shade provides relief and protection from the relentless assault of the midday sun. Shade makes a sidewalk bearable for walking, a bus stop tolerable for waiting and a park accessible for passing time. Without the salvation of shade, urban space becomes a harsh sun-blasted landscape, completely uninviting and seemingly uninhabitable.

Shade is effectively the chief urban planner in tropical cities.

In Cartagena, social activity and daily commerce come into full bloom beneath the shade of large trees and tall buildings in the same way the natural world springs to life around fresh water streams and newly formed ponds. Men selling fruit juice, women offering mobile phone services, a teenager hustling cheap plastic goods and several commuters waiting for a collective-taxi all gather beneath the shelter provided by a large tree. Older gentlemen prefer to spend the day drinking coffee below the cool patches of outdoor shade rather than within the confining walls of indoor cafés. Shade dictates pedestrian walking routes, it determines where people stop and chat, it decides where economic activity can take place and where economic activity has absolutely no chance of survival. A business will fail to attract enough customers simply because there isn’t sufficient shade between the business and the nearest shaded corridor. The sun can make a wide walkway feel unbelievably narrow by forcing people to choose between enduring the brutal midday sun and jostling shoulder-to-shoulder among sweaty people within the limited shaded spaces of the walkway.

Shade becomes the ultimate common denominator.

Anyone familiar with the intensity of the tropical sun knows that the difference between being directly in the sun and being in the cover of shade is everything. Walking beneath the midday sun immediately triggers an uninvited eruption of sweat and a sudden onslaught of discomfort. Worse yet, the unbearable heat infects the mind, limiting its capacity to do anything except urgently search for shade. The sun has the debilitating power to turn any pleasant stroll into a vicious battle with the elements, leaving the body sapped of energy and the mind unnecessarily stressed.

In many tropical countries, visible marks that show too much contact with the sun, such as dark and leathery skin, are symbols of the lower class. Those with sun-weathered skin are usually those who work low wage jobs on the street or in exposed rural areas. Sun protection becomes a daily struggle as the sun’s wrath takes its toll on a human body throughout a lifetime.

Farmers in Southeast Asia are famous for their wide hats and loose clothing that provide head-to-toe sun protection during all hours of the work day. Sun protection in Southeast Asia is extremely important, especially as pale white skin is a symbol of purity and beauty. For Western countries far from the equator, tanned skin is considered attractive and represents a healthy and active lifestyle.

That being said, white skin was the pinnacle of beauty in Europe just a few centuries ago. White skin represented the wealth and privilege of the aristocratic class in Europe’s traditionally hierarchical class system. The Spanish Empire brought these cultural values to the New World where they enforced an even harsher class system in the Americas. African slaves, Native Americans, American-born white creoles and Spanish natives lived within a stringent social hierarchy where nicknames for every shade of skin color imaginable were used to classify individuals in society. Today’s Colombian population is one of the most well blended populations in the world after nearly 500 years of mixing, yet skin tones still govern political, economic and social structures in present day Colombia. Light skin is still a sign of privilege and dark skin remains the mark of the lower class.

Sun and shade control both the physical and social realms of city life in tropical countries. They become the ultimate magistrates of the urban landscape. Fortunately for us, the creation and application of shade is a democratized urban public policy, available to those willing to think creatively about the use of shade in their cities.

Shade is cheap to create and easy to modify. Strategically placed man-made structures are the most cost-effective way to create urban shade but tropical countries are blessed with a natural alternative – flora. Lush tropical climates allow for year-round growth of urban greenery which can provide a city with natural sources of shade and cool, clean air. Rooftop gardens alleviate over-heating while also preventing excessive water runoff which is important in tropical cities that receive heavy storms. With some creativity we can imagine tropical cities full of hanging gardens, stretching between buildings and across sun-exposed urban spaces.

Shade also prevents the over-heating of the physical urban landscape itself. Sun-baked asphalt absorbs massive amounts of heat and energy which are slow to release when temperatures don’t vary much between night and day. Relentless exposure to the sun and the constant burning of fossil fuels essentially turns the concrete city into a giant oven that slowly cooks everything within. Tropical cities need a cooling valve and a thick application of sun block lotion. Urban greenery provides the solution – a floral exoskeleton of relief and protection.

Shade is malleable. It can assume any form and adapt to all of our needs. Creativity in design and collaboration in upkeep are key.

A neighborhood Shade Index would give us a measure to calculate the shade needs of a particular neighborhood. In this way, city-wide organizations could implement shade programs tailored to the needs of individual neighborhoods. Cities could launch campaigns to raise awareness in local communities about how to collectively care for neighborhood flora and greenery. Regulations to protect existing urban vegetation and undeveloped land would be essential. Equally important would be programs that reintroduce local biodiversity into our human urban environments. This isn’t as far off as it seems.

Permaculture is a branch of agricultural and landscape design that aligns human goals and needs with those of nature. The permaculture doctrine asks us to integrate an environmental consciousness into our design process as we develop the structures and systems that govern our human-created landscapes. The principles of permaculture have gained serious momentum in the fields of architecture, landscape design, urban horticulture and city planning in recent years. With permaculture as the common thread between these fields, we can begin to move towards cities that are more in tune with the natural pulse of the earth.

This means not only protection from the sun but also harnessing its boundless energy. Those who work with solar energy view the sun as an abundant source of energy that’s available to us if we’re creative in our methods of capture. Making use of the sun’s immense power is as equally as important as protecting against its overwhelming radiance.

A bus ride through Cartagena’s interior neighborhoods reveals a dense landscape of reinforced concrete buildings that rarely have the opportunity to escape the sun’s merciless pounding. Most large, original trees have fallen victim to urban sprawl only to be sparingly replaced by street trees that hardly provide enough cover for neighborhood dwellers. Major commercial avenues become harsh, sun-blasted environments dominated by fast moving, carbon-spitting motorized vehicles. People plan their day according to the sun, making sure to avoid unnecessary transit or activity during the sun’s peak hours. The midday sun in Cartagena is the unyielding arbitrator of urban space, dictating which spaces are active and which spaces will remain dormant until sun fall. With innovative design, shade could truly be Cartagena’s chief urban planner, but for now, Cartagena remains a city managed by the sun.

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