A warm winter embrace

The pandemic has made clear just how important fresh air and social connections are to our well-being; rather than surrender to the cold, cities that spend a significant portion of the year under snow and ice can, and should, rise to the challenges and… enjoy?


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Whether it was a picnic at a plaza, or a gathering on a patio, or a literal walk in the park — the importance for social connections and a high-quality public space has been punctuated during the pandemic.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/12/2021 (412 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Whether it was a picnic at a plaza, or a gathering on a patio, or a literal walk in the park — the importance for social connections and a high-quality public space has been punctuated during the pandemic.

We took our computers and meetings outside, took up jogging or cycling on sidewalks that extended into city streets, and sought places to interact with our friends and loved ones.

Cities were compelled to support individuals and businesses during the pandemic, with quick responses and changes to public policy and programs. In Winnipeg, streets were turned over to pedestrians, allowing for safe distancing from one another while outdoors — a temporary pilot project that many advocated to remain permanent in several areas across the city.

SUPPLIED Man laughs at patio table.

In Edmonton, restaurants were provided free, expedited permits for outdoor patios, and businesses along major commercial corridors were invited to apply for micro-grants to support their transition to pandemic-resilient models such as contactless payment systems or infrastructure for pickup of goods.

Cities converted vacant or under-utilized spaces into temporary shelters for people experiencing homelessness, as mandated physical-distancing measures could not be accommodated in existing overcrowded facilities.

To allow for these transitions, city governments had to relax bylaws and policies. In many ways, they tossed out their usual playbooks, so to speak, shifting the way they govern and respond. Many of the interventions continued throughout the coldest months; in Edmonton, 40 per cent of survey respondents indicated that they spent more time outside than in previous winters and 71 per cent said they would spend either the same amount or more time outside this year.

As the snow begins to fall, we should reflect on which interventions worked well, and how we might adapt them this winter. What do we need to do to stay active, to stay mentally well and to keep our cities’ hearts beating?

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Last winter, Bloomberg CityLab cited Edmonton’s WinterCity Strategy as an important precedent from which other cities can learn, noting, “It has become clear that the safest place to be with other people is outdoors, and we can learn from winter cities how to keep the good times (literally) rolling.”

Launched in 2012, the WinterCity Strategy outlines ways to: increase opportunities for outdoor play; improve winter transportation; design for safety, comfort, and beauty; develop a four-season patio culture; and increase festivals and celebrations. Through these endeavours, Edmonton hopes to nurture a vibrant winter life, prioritize quality winter design, bolster a bustling winter economy and celebrate the city’s wintry identity.

SUPPLIED Couples walk after dusk.

Cities can take inspiration from Edmonton’s strategy. For example, they might pilot creative projects that use snow and ice as a resource. Imagine if cities used snow to build snow forts, slides, sculptures and climbing mounds. What if businesses used snow to develop wind barriers for patrons to remain outside comfortably?

Edmonton’s strategy also calls for accessible opportunities to play outside, from free skating at outdoor rinks to reconfiguring existing city trails for cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. Specifically, the plan calls for “white-of-ways” where snow cover is kept on parts of sidewalks and other routes for snow-assisted mobility.

“While we are connecting and sharing with others that are generating ideas and solutions, one thing is clear, Edmonton is arguably the international leader in winter city approaches,” says Lisa Cavicchia, program director of the Canadian Urban Institute.

“It’s the only city that I have come across that has a comprehensive strategy focused on embracing winter. And the only strategy that is holistic in that it includes changing mindsets, building community and building the local economy.”

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For Sheena Jardine-Olade, one of the founders of Night Lab, a research and policy consultancy focused on the night-time economy, illumination should be a key consideration when preparing our cities for the upcoming cold.

SUPPLIED People walk in a closed street.

“With negative perceptions of winter being dark and dreary, lighting has an impact,” says Jardine-Olade. “Our travel in winter tends to be destination-driven, and the proper lighting can get us to stop and take a moment to interact and engage with our surroundings. Lighting improves legibility, wayfinding, perception of comfort and safety, and creates better access and use of public space during the winter months for everyone — night workers, those with mobility issues, vulnerable populations, those participating in recreation or social gatherings. So, how can we play with light to create positive winter narratives?”

With changing climate and weather patterns, the one thing that all festivals and events can rely on is darkness. This means they can play with light. But to do that, they need to manage darkness. “Light can shape feelings in spaces. Light can guide us, inspire us,” says lighting designer Sabine De Schutter.

In winter cities, often less light is needed because it reflects off the snow. We can add permanent or temporary lighting to spaces to draw people in. One of Edmonton’s new skating trails has colourful lights that project a mosaic effect on the ice. This creates a whimsical experience while gently lighting the trail, allowing skaters’ night vision to remain so they can still see stars overhead.

In winter cities, access to sunshine is important for physical and mental health during the darker months. As cities add taller buildings to meet higher-density goals, rooftop spaces will become more important for public life and well-being. In Calgary, a temporary park designed by Winnipeg-firm Public City Architecture, High Park, was erected on an underused downtown parkade. Colourful picnic tables, fake grass, and lights adorned this new public space throughout 2021. Local music venues and fitness centres that have had to close because of COVID-19 are also exploring whether they could use the space for concerts and fitness classes.

Public washroom access has long been an issue for everyone, regardless of age, gender, ability, or wealth. Put in simple terms, when you gotta go, you gotta go! Public toilets have largely been absent in most cityscapes, or are available at limited capacities or in states of disrepair. When patronizing businesses this past summer, many found it difficult to stay in place for longer periods of time with limited access to public toilets. Rae and Wins Bridgman of Winnipeg-based firm BridgmanCollaborative Architecture, have long advocated for four-season public toilets that are colourful, highly-visible, open and well-ventilated, spacious and comfortable with places to sit, non-gendered and for everyone.

“Washing hands is key to stopping the pandemic in its tracks. It’s so obvious we need more safe, clean, monitored, year-round public toilets in our cities. Clean public toilets (with places to wash our hands), they make all the difference between thriving healthy cities and declining unhealthy cities,” Wins says.

SUPPLIED A home blanketed in snow.

The City of Toronto, as part of its COVID-19 response, expanded its supply of washroom facilities in parks from 64 to 143 near the end of 2020.

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Edmonton’s WinterCity Strategy led to the creation of three tool kits designed to encourage citizens to get outside in winter: Be Active, Be Social and Be Creative. They provide tips and ideas on things such as dressing for being outside, activities, recipes to cook on the fire, decorating front yards and houses and hosting winter picnics and backyard parties. Neighbourhood play streets, where a street is closed off for activities, have become popular in many cities in the summer, and can be adapted to provide safe spaces for physically distanced winter gatherings.

Every winter in Winnipeg, Hazel Borys’s neighbours collaborate and share their front lawns to develop slides and play space. Borys, CEO of PlaceMakers Inc., is a winter city aficionado who guides governments around the world through policy, physical planning and land-use law reforms.

“When the development bylaw prioritizes a human-scaled public realm, it makes wintertime activation much easier,” says Borys. “That is, when rear lanes take care of parking cars and storing trash, it frees up front yards to get convivial. That’s when Winnipeggers are prone to put two front yards together for a skating rink or a toboggan run…. When people have space that is easily compiled and when the city allows temporary uses to spring up, we are more prone to inhabit our outdoors year round.”

While the above activities present an opportunity to support the local economy and neighbourhood participation in the winter, it is important to note that winter also presents significant challenges to those underhoused. While cities are in a hurry to transform public spaces for the local economy to flourish in the winter, it is incumbent on us, as planners, designers, and as neighbours, to consider the harsh realities of the cold and its impacts on those sleeping rough. How do we reconcile a desire for interventions that carve out public space for private uses? How do we reframe our thinking to ensure spaces are for everyone, not just for the few?

During the height of COVID-19, underutilized spaces and buildings were used as temporary shelters for individuals experiencing homelessness to adequately physically distance themselves. Would that be the appropriate response for the upcoming winter season? What might need to be reconsidered? What other spaces should be adapted to accommodate? Most cities have ample space to provide socially-distanced services and shelter to residents struggling with homelessness.

SUPPLIED A skater dances in a backyard rink.

So what can we do?

Tool kits and guidelines to respond to COVID-19 have been prepared across the nation, with many now focusing on city building through a winter lens. Below are several implementation scenarios that may unfold in the short term.

Celebrate winter: attend your local winter fest. City administrations and citizens should look at what is already happening in winter in their cities. What kinds of festivals and events are already being produced? How can they be supported to continue in a COVID-19 context? Find out how to host a neighbourhood play street. Meet neighbours in the park, take a chair, a blanket and your own hot chocolate.

Create an experience: creating a captivating winter experience is key to thriving in the coldest of months. The Flying Canoe Volant Festival in Edmonton has been doing this for years — taking more than a kilometre of forested ravine in the heart of the city and turning it into a magical display of light, art and culture. Temporary light installations and public art displays created by local artists fill the space with colour and wonder, while cultural displays and performances entrance with displays of heritage, history and resilience (including the most Canadian of treats: hot maple syrup folded with fresh snow). In 2018, temperatures reached the -38 C in Edmonton, yet more than 20,000 people showed up. The next year, with -20 C weather, which is much more common for the time of year, 50,000 attended. The proof is in the pudding — or the syrup, for that matter. To truly thrive in the winter months, we need to create a winter experience.

Enjoy refreshments al fresco: support local venues by going to a winter patio. Venues can make their patios winter-friendly by blocking the wind and adding heating elements and lights. Adding a touch of colour and (even fake) greenery will make a space more inviting. It is important to keep in mind that a winter patio experience does not have to be, and will not be, the same as one in summer. Appetizers, desserts, soups and hot drinks are much more suited to sitting outside than a full meal.

Create an authentic winter experience;• do not try to recreate a summer one. And keep in mind, your backyard patio does not need to be retired for the winter, either — blankets, a fire pit and hot chocolate will make for a cosy family evening.

SUPPLIED. Cyclists ride in winter.

Clear the snow: help your neighbours by keeping your sidewalk clear of snow. Getting outside and walking will be so much more important this winter. City administrations might need to increase snow clearing in parks, too. A single uncleared path or windrow on a corner creates a barrier for some folks that will end their journey. Residents with limited mobility, such as wheelchair users or parents with strollers, should always be considered in snow-clearing procedures. This winter in particular, when social isolation could be more serious than usual, good snow clearing becomes a matter of social justice.

Keep on pedalling: try winter cycling. Cycling became so popular around the world during the pandemic that it was difficult to buy a bike. That trend continued in Edmonton, as 24 per cent of winter cyclists said they had picked up cycling in the last 12 months. Many cities closed streets to vehicular traffic so people could walk and cycle with more room. Many cities such as Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg continue to add bike lanes. Put studded tires on your bike and give it a go. If cities want to encourage year-round cycling, maintenance of bike lanes is key. People of all ages will cycle when the lanes are clear and they feel safe. As an added bonus, in many cities, businesses on bike lanes seem to have an increase in sales because pedestrians and cyclists will stop more frequently than vehicle drivers. So cycling will support the local economy, too.

Use winter as a resource: we have two options when it comes to planning and designing for a cold, winter city — plan for winter, or plan with winter. Winter, and the usual suspects that follow — snow, wind, ice, and darkness — can be understood as resources we can use to create an experience, as opposed to vicious elements we need to mitigate against. Cities need to harness the power that these elements provide — free, natural resources, often occurring in abundance, and use them to create experiences. By planning and designing with our natural environment, instead of against it, we can build a flourishing winter experience in which we embrace the beauty of the coldest months. These ideas are not new — in Edmonton, the Silver Skate Festival has been inviting internationally renowned snow carvers to craft and create unique and engaging displays out of our most abundant winter resource. When used correctly, snow and ice can be important building resources. Once we understand winter as a resource instead of a nuisance, we can plan and design a winter city that actively thrives in its environment — instead of constantly cursing that fluffy white stuff.

Be flexible, creative and supportive: ask what is getting in the way of supporting vibrant, fun outdoor winter life, and what can be done to help. Cities can look at which policies and regulations were designed with summer in mind, and reimagine them with a winter lens. Toronto, for example, has already changed its rules to allow portable heaters on all patios. Edmonton’s strategy calls to “further develop a culture of shared responsibility for safety that supports active, engaged winter lifestyles and appropriate risk taking.” Shifting to a shared culture of risk around winter activities also requires flexibility, creativity and support from all sides. Partnerships and community-driven ideas can be supported by city administrations in many ways, such as grants, stewardship and permit relief. Focused, collective, centralized marketing will also support activities and businesses. Led by city administration or a tourism office, a targeted campaign will promote festivals, events and local businesses and will help citizens find out what is going on and what they need to know during this COVID-19 winter.

Rising to the challenge: Winnipeg and Edmonton are both known for their winter identities — cities where temperatures can dip lower than -30 C during a cold snap. Whether we take to ice rinks for a game of shinny or skate along frozen rivers, we also enjoy times of indoor coziness à la Danish hygge. Both realities are necessary, as not everyone will embrace winter. But like it or not, winter is here and we need to plan for it. We can do it in a way that creates an invitation for people to get out and enjoy it.

The snowy season has been a source of strength for both cities’ creativity, ingenuity and resilience. We want to leverage it, to bolster our economy, to encourage neighbourly participation and to support connectedness and livability. The question is, what resources are we willing to put into the advancement of our winter plans, and has this pandemic created a compelling enough reason for us to get started? Time will tell, and our investment or divestment will be quite evident as our cities thaw.

Jason Syvixay is an urban planner and PhD candidate who convenes dialogue around pressing urban issues. He has helped to build safe, resilient, and equitable places and policies through his work at the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, HTFC Planning & Design and the City of Edmonton.

Isla Tanaka is the Winter City Planner for the City of Edmonton. She has presented on winter life and design around the world and helped plan two international winter cities conferences.

Amos Kajner-Nonnekes is an urban designer, public artist and creative. He is a founding partner of Thirdspace Design Group Inc., an Edmonton urban design and placemaking studio, as well as a partner with Vignettes Showcase Inc., an Edmonton-based design studio and public art firm.


Updated on Saturday, December 18, 2021 3:55 PM CST: Adds cutlines

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