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Tropical Urbanism

Updated: Mar 22

To understand our cities better, it is worth analyzing our daily experience in them. Today we touch on the topic of thermal comfort (hot and cold), and how the design of our cities directly influences our experience as pedestrians.

The inhabitants of Panama City are experiencing a very particular situation - the roller coaster of heat. In simple terms, it is the abrupt temperature transition that we experience almost every day, regardless of where we work or live. If you have ever seen someone walking down the street with a cold coat (in Panama) you probably asked yourself more than one question about it. “Surely his office is a freezer…” Truly ironic, if we live in a city as hot as Panama.

But what is the problem with this? Drastic temperature changes.

We start the morning in a room with a fan or air conditioning (cold), a scalding shower (hot), to get into a conditioned car or bus (cold), walk on bare sidewalks under the sun (hot), to finally enter a office with air conditioning (cold). Those who drive are not saved either, since the parking blocks are usually not properly ventilated, and often have air conditioning vents (they get even hotter).

A bit of theory: drastic changes in temperature are a cause of thermal discomfort. The human body is capable of self-regulating its temperature, but it is not an immediate process. Due to the “thermal history” we feel the heat or cold much more pronounced if we come from the opposite extreme.

Additionally, this adds to the positive feedback of every tropical city: the hotter it is, we put in larger A/C machines, which end up making the city hotter. For these and other reasons, cities are “heat islands” – they are warmer than their surroundings, regardless of the climate.

Back to the topic. Accepting that Panama is hot, we have to attack the other side of the coin.

Architects and urban planners have many tools at hand to combat this through design. It's time to start considering the transitions between the spaces we experience daily:

Add “thermal buffers” between the pedestrian and the street: asphalt surfaces can reach 60-70ºC, and cars clearly add to this heat. Separations can be as simple as bushes or planters.

Surfaces that reflect heat: avoid asphalt (previous point) and synthetic grass.

Shaded spaces for pedestrians: improve the comfort of the areas directly surrounding the entrances. Trees, eaves and pergolas work for this.

Lobbies with airlocks: use transition spaces to minimize the loss of cold air due to the constant opening of the main doors.

Adequately ventilated parking lots, without additional heat sources (apart from cars).

These temperature changes between indoors and outdoors are inevitable, especially in Panama. However, we can improve our relationship with this tropical climate. Let's start designing for the climate, not against it.

What heat sources can you identify in your surroundings? What drastic temperature changes are there on your daily commute? How do you think this problem can be improved?


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