To create successful, growing innovation districts, local leaders in many cities have led bold, transformative moves to re-purpose the land. In many cases, re-imagining and redeveloping the landscape, as a means to advance an innovation ecosystem, was essential because districts are often emerging in areas designed for another time and another economy. This physical re-make has often included the re-design of boulevards, which serve as a critical spine across a district—often connecting multiple nodes of activity.
For any type of community or locale, well-designed boulevards create a pronounced sense of place. They are destinations providing retail stores, restaurants, and community activities. They are people-centered streets where residents, visitors, and workers sit and linger. They are corridors where traffic is often intentionally slowed. And they are aesthetically magnetic places where the constellation of trees can create both art and architecture.
For innovation districts, well-designed boulevards can also enhance the level of connectivity among institutions, start-ups, and industry; increase the accidental collisions between people to strengthen social networks and create a “buzzing” environment; facilitate the convergence of diverse disciplines and sectors, which is needed to accelerate new waves of innovation; and create a community where a diversity of people are drawn together in magnetic, inviting, and open places.
What is often overlooked in boulevard design—as well as in the design of public plazas, open spaces, and the spaces between buildings—is that variations in climate (temperature, sun exposure, and other variables) should be taken into account in the process. What this means is that bourgeoning innovation districts in hot, dry climates—such as the Middle East, many parts of Africa, certain areas of Australia, and the American Southwest—should neither rely on, nor attempt to replicate, design principles and models developed for innovation districts in cooler and/or wetter climates.
To support the early work of an innovation district in Be’er Sheva, Israel, a city on the edge of the Negev desert, The Global Institute research team set out to find cutting-edge examples of boulevards in similar arid conditions. This narrowed the research to areas with hot, dry climates and with high levels of particulates in the air, such as sand and dust. We were particularly intrigued to conduct research on boulevard designs for arid conditions, considering that 35 percent of the world’s land surface is covered by arid lands and drylands, known as desert environments.1 This is also where over 20 percent of the world’s population, some 1.5 Billion people, face a range of complex challenges, such as the scarcity of fresh water and/or precipitation, inadequate infrastructure systems, and public health issues related to air pollution and heat.2 Clearly, climate change and its profound effects on people must be more integrated into planning and design processes.
Research reveals real work ahead to create “cooler” Boulevards
Put simply, our research failed to discover strong examples of people-centered, climate-sensitive designs for walkable streets and boulevards in arid climates. This is consistent with the findings of Gerald Mills, a climatologist, who explained that “the difficulty in applying research in urban climatology to architectural design problems may be explained by the fact that ‘despite the common interest in the urban climate, these fields pursue different research interests, employ contrasting methodologies and present results differently.” 3
Most designs for re-imagined boulevards focused extensively on creating “hip and cool places,” but a derivative effect is leaving people overexposed and overheated. Many boulevard designs in arid climates favor paved, impervious plazas, shading in only a few select areas, buildings with large reflective windows, and vast, gaping distances between buildings. The lack of shading alone translates into high levels of sun exposure, drastically reducing comfortable walk times, and discouraging any desire to stop, linger, or stay outside. These challenges are magnified when young children and the aging population are considered.