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What makes a cold city cool? Investigating urban design - 3/24/2014 3:26 pm

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A dedicated space for alumni, UAA’s new Alumni Center - 2/12/2014 4:08 pm

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What makes a cold city cool? Investigating urban design

Where you and I might see nothing more than an empty parking lot or a barren stretch of sidewalk, Bree Kessler sees a pop-up drive-in movie theater or space for a mobile library. With a background in environmental psychology, Kessler studies the way people interact with the urban landscape. How do changes in the built environment—sidewalks, stairs, parks—shape the way people interact with it and with each other? How can we activate some of the underused spaces on campus and in Anchorage?

For the last two years Kessler, a term assistant professor in UAA’s Department of Health Sciences and a faculty fellow with the Center for Community Engagement & Learning, has been investigating winter cities everywhere from Rovaniemi, Finland, to Copenhagen, Denmark, to learn more about innovative urban designs and interventions that make these cold cities cool.

“Why are people congregating outside? What is happening there that we could do in Anchorage? There are small fixes that don’t need to be major capital projects,” said Kessler. The ideas go beyond the typical winter athletic activities like skiing and fat tire biking.

UAA's Cuddy Quad: UAA’s Cuddy Quad got a facelift during Winterfest with CCEL’s Winter Design Project. Philip Hall/University of Alaska AnchorageUAA's Cuddy Quad: UAA’s Cuddy Quad got a facelift during Winterfest with CCEL’s Winter Design Project. Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage

“Good seating, food and entertainment attract people,” she said. In a cold city, just add a little heat. A couple weeks ago, she worked with collaborators at the Anchorage Museum to screen Blue Hawaii on the “lawn” in front of the museum. With minimal advertising, they had 80 people show up with blankets and snacks for a little Elvis-in-the-tropics fun. A few heat lamps helped take some of the chill out of the air.

“In a lot of other cities there are burn barrels and heat sources everywhere,” she said, going on to describe the gas heat lamps built into awnings that kept restaurant patrons outside sipping coffee even in snowy weather. “Heat is a cheap, easy fix.”

Kessler’s objective in investigating northern cities is to collect data surrounding successful public spaces to see how we Anchorageites might best enjoy our own winter city. It turns out the literature is sparse.

“When I started my research I learned there’s limited scholarship on the urban arctic,” she said.

When Kessler visits a new city, she approaches it a little like some of Alaska’s storied Arctic explorers approached the wilderness, but with fewer supplies strapped to her back. Instead of backcountry adventures, she goes on urban expeditions and lets the city’s design and flow guide her.

It’s an exercise she gives to students in her classes, too.

“I use a method called being a flâneur,” she said. “It’s participant observation, essentially wandering around a city.”

“Hey,” you’re thinking. “I’ve done that.” And it’s probably true. What started out as 19th century French term for “stroller” or “saunterer,” flâneur came to mean more to scholars and artists, something more along the lines of a keen urban spectator.

Those of us who are apt to carry a notebook into the woods on a hike to journal about nature are a lot less likely to record our observations from a walk through downtown Anchorage, though.

In America in the 1970s, journalist William Whyte was turning his attention to the use of urban spaces and popularized methods for observing and objectively measuring city dynamics, something that hadn’t been scientifically studied. He published The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces in 1980 detailing his findings.

Kessler is also applying Whyte’s methods to the study of winter cities. For instance, to monitor use patterns in UAA’s Cuddy Quad during Winterfest and the Winter Design Project that filled the space with art installations, music and nightly burn barrels, she mounted a rooftop camera to take time-lapse images of the activity.

What she’s looking for when she studies the images are changes in the way students or visitors interacted with the quad. Did the intervention draw more people outside? Did they linger longer?

Alaska Portrait: Photo courtesy of Bree Kessler.Alaska Portrait: Photo courtesy of Bree Kessler.

For the answers to these questions and more on urban winter spaces and Bree Kessler's work visit UAA's Green and Gold News site.

Written by Jamie Gonzales, UAA Office of University Advancement.

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