The mercury has dropped below zero and the first dusting of snow covers the ground: welcome to another winter season in Winnipeg. Winter is often seen as an impediment to creating a vibrant city — something to be shovelled away, endured and managed rather than embraced.
Everyone designs. From inspired entrepreneurs full to the brim with ideas for our city to the many pop-up shops that have emerged in our downtown.
From the corner coffee shop to the local body shop, design is everywhere.
Duets is an exclusive Winnipeg Free Press series that pairs design experts with local champions and innovators to brainstorm new opportunities for civic building.
However, in Winnipeg, a shift in thinking about winter is taking hold as our creative communities embrace the unique opportunities for place-making that winter provides.
Winnipeg is now at the centre of a growing global "Winter City" movement that is seeing northern cities explore ways to plan and design their urban infrastructure in a manner that is adapted to the needs of a cold climate.
This includes streets and public spaces designed to be comfortable and accessible in cold weather, and creating memorable winter experiences and events that bring people together, outside.
The explosive popularity of the Red River Mutual Trail for skating, warming hut installations and other winter attractions at The Forks, Festival du Voyageur, FortWhyte Alive and beyond, are all examples of Winnipeg embracing its identity as a winter city. And now the world is starting to take notice.
After several years of high-profile features in publications such as the New York Times and Vogue, Winnipeg and our winters are having a moment. Last month, Lonely Planet named Manitoba as one of the top ten regions to visit in 2019, largely because of our alluring winter season.
But these flagship winter events are just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. The real experience of winter in Winnipeg is in the everyday — pickup hockey at the local outdoor rink, a quiet weekend cross-country ski or a late-night game of curling with friends.
For this instalment of Duets, we gathered a group of winter lovers and place-makers to talk about the joys — and challenges — of winter and what it takes for Winnipeg to truly become a leading global winter city. Gathering over mugs of hot chocolate just days before the first snowfall, we kicked off the conversation by sharing our earliest and most vivid memories of winter.
"I remember playing hockey as a child at the outdoor community rink," says John Wyndels, senior policy analyst at the provincial government’s Disabilities Issues Office. "They were set up in most little residential parks in the winter, and were very informal. It would be a place to get outside with other kids in the neighbourhood; you’d tie your skates out there, or just bring your boots and play a game of spongee. We would do that for hours and hours — getting our feet cold and then trying to warm them up afterwards."
Jody Watson, director of education at FortWhyte Alive, remembers her first snow day vividly.
"I got up late one morning and came downstairs rather frantically because I was supposed to be at school. It was November, and I remember looking out the window in amazement at a blanket of white as my dad said, ‘Jody, school’s cancelled! You have a snow day!’
"I remember thinking: ‘I get to stay home all day and play outside?’ And that’s exactly what we did. All the neighbourhood kids came flooding out of their houses and we played together in the snow."
Clare MacKay, vice-president of corporate and community initiatives at The Forks North Portage Partnership, shares the story of her parents’ first brush with wintry weather when they landed in Winnipeg for the first time.
"My parents immigrated to Winnipeg from England at a time when the internet didn’t exist, so they had no idea what to expect. They were in their 20s, I was little and my mom was pregnant with my sister. It was June when they arrived and it actually snowed — a weird, freak snow event! I think at that point, if they could have gone home, they would have."
HTFC principal Elly Bonny also had a startling early memory of winter to share, albeit for a different reason. "I grew up in Saskatchewan and my earliest winter memory is around the age of five when my dad took me for my first downhill ski at a local prairie hill. I remember riding the lift to the top of the hill, my dad pointing me down, and then just flying down the hill into a tremendous uncontrolled wipeout.
"I don’t remember if I was hurt or upset, but I do remember the ski patroller who slid up and offered me the excuse that a "snow snake" had tripped me up. I remember being carried in his arms as he skied me back down the hill like some superhero straight out of a movie."
Winter, we all agreed, is a complicated season, one that jolts the senses with shocks of cold on the one hand, but is also a time of year when nature tends to slow down and grow quiet. That contrast between exhilaration and sense of calm was a theme that Dennis Cunningham, president of the board at the Riverview Community Centre, reflects on.
"One of the many hats I wear at Riverview is volunteer ski-trail groomer. There are days when the snow is freshly fallen, the sun is bright in the sky, it’s not too cold and I have people skiing right behind me as I lay down fresh tracks.
"It’s hard not to appreciate the winter when you live so close to these fantastic trails. I can ski two laps and be home in an under an hour."
Our rivers have long been the focus of winter activity in Winnipeg. What is it about getting down onto the river that draws people? How do the rivers help create connections between people and places in our city?
Bonny: My family lives near the Seine River, so we go down to explore fairly often. We take our kids to the indoor rink for skating lessons, but nothing beats skating on the open river. Last year, near the end of the season, there was this great week when the river flooded and then froze again. We were able to skate for kilometres down the river, in and out of the trees. It’s moments like these when winter in Winnipeg feels perfectly magical.
Watson: I grew up just down the river from Assiniboine Park, so we were spoiled in the sense that we could go to the duck pond to skate whenever we wanted. But once the river was frozen, the action moved there. All the parents in our area would get together and shovel a clearing on the ice for us kids to skate. It’s a unique experience that you don’t find in many other places outside the Prairies.
MacKay: The rivers also open up access between neighbourhoods that can feel very disconnected in the summer. You’ll see well-worn paths that people create on their own, little trails across the river connecting Munson Park to Armstrong’s Point, or Osborne Village to Norwood.
Winnipeg’s identity has always been wrapped up with the winter; "Winterpeg" is as much a point of pride as an insult. With the success of winter programming at The Forks, people’s attitudes about winter seem to be changing. Is Winnipeg rediscovering a love for winter?
MacKay: When you consider what the rest of the country tends to think about us and our winters — and I don’t think this is true of everybody — that Winnipeg in winter is a place to be avoided, and how we’ve perpetuated this idea by apologizing for it in the past, we don’t do that anymore. We really, truly embrace winter here now and there’s a definite shift in attitude.
I think the idea that Winnipeggers are "rediscovering" winter isn’t necessarily accurate. Winnipeg has a long history of embracing winter. We have archival images of people skating on the river from over a hundred years ago; images of women in bustle dresses with their skates on.
Bonny: That history is so fascinating. I know, for example, that in the 1920s, there were a number of winter carnivals that happened on the legislative grounds with open-air skating, ice castles and elaborate lighting, ski jumps and toboggan sliding.
Watson: There has been a shift, and we’ve seen it at FortWhyte, too. One of things that has worked to our advantage is using social media to showcase all the amazing things you can do in the winter — to show people that you can get outside and go ice fishing, strap on snowshoes, go tobogganing or have bannock around a fire. I think people have kind of forgotten about some of these things, but once you see it happening, it becomes possible.
The Red River Mutual Trail has been a game-changer. The variety of activities organized on the river seems to grow every year. And now we are seeing the rivers being used as a way to get around the city and commute to work.
MacKay: Before the Red River Mutual Trail, we weren’t fully aware that there was this pent-up demand for access to the river. And the numbers are astonishing. In the last five years, the number of visitors we get in January, February and March — when it’s above -25 C — are the same as in July and August. Over the course of a February weekend, we’ll get 50,000 people walk through The Forks Market.
Between Louis Riel Weekend and the combination of RAW:almond (the winter pop-up river restaurant) and the warming huts and a number of other activities all sort of concentrating together, it feels like something has just caught. We’ve always been open to the idea that whatever you want to try on the river, let’s do it. We build it and then the community comes along to program it.
Bonny: I cycle to work year round, and while I have routes off the river, I use the trail up the Red River whenever I can. For winter cycling, you can’t do any better. The roads are only so safe in winter; the chances of slipping out, or cars not being able to stop behind you are just so much greater. When you’re down on the river and the sun is on you, it’s relaxing and takes you out of any sort of danger zone. You just have to check the wind direction before getting onto the trail!
Wyndels: Using a wheelchair, it’s actually easier for me to roll on the river than it is on sidewalks. I believe it was two years ago that a ramp was installed at The Forks to access the Mutual Trail. Suddenly, I had a new lease on getting outside during the winter. It’s hard getting enough physical activity in the winter months; you sort of hunker down. But being able to get out on the river has totally changed my outlook on winter.
Getting around in the winter must be a challenge for people with barriers to mobility.
Wyndels: The challenges during the winter are multi-faceted for persons with disabilities, and mobility plays a big part. During the summer months, I’ll roll to work; during the winter months, not so much. The sidewalks are just too difficult to negotiate. And I recognize the challenges that the city faces with snow clearing and ongoing maintenance of the pavement.
Bonny: Winnipeg built the skywalk and underground networks, in part, to provide a sheltered way for people to get around in the winter. Many designers would bemoan the skywalks as anti-urban and blame them for reducing vibrancy on the sidewalks, but for people with limited mobility, they are critical.
Wyndels: Absolutely. I work out of the Cargill Building on Graham Avenue, which is connected to the skywalk. So I can go a lot of places downtown. It’s better for me, it’s better for the environment because I don’t have to take my vehicle. It’s better for everyone. I know from an architectural perspective they might not be the most attractive, but from my own perspective it certainly helps.
Accessibility will always be a challenge, but I think the city and the province is becoming more accessible overall. Not only because of the new Accessibility for Manitobans Act, but there is just more of a recognition that as we become an older population, our ability to move around is going to be diminished. So the more we can think about accessibility in a proactive way, the better it is for all of us.
What design ideas should Winnipeg be exploring to make our city more accessible in the winter?
Wyndels: There’s probably a lot to be learned from cities like Copenhagen, Stockholm and Helsinki that have been around a lot longer than ours. I’m sure they have very interesting ideas about designing with the seasons — understanding the position of the sun in northern latitudes and positioning buildings and public spaces in a way that captures the available light, uses passive heating and so on."
MacKay: I think one of the key things to learn from those European cities is that they prioritize people over cars. The thinking is about how do we move people, not how do we move cars from A to B. In cities like Copenhagen that also have cold and snowy winters, we see cycling and pedestrian lanes that are cleared before roads. The focus in these cities is centred around helping people get outside."
Bonny: Planning, designing and managing for winter cities requires a different way of thinking about infrastructure, environmental conditions and the people’s needs. Edmonton is an interesting precedent because the city has developed a set of winter city-design guidelines. They promote creative approaches to winter lighting, creating and using wind barriers, taking advantage of passive heat in south-facing spaces — all different ways of supporting usable and interactive outdoor spaces.
MacKay: One innovative idea that we are exploring for the new railside development (Railside at The Forks) across from the Canadian Museum for Human Rights includes heated sidewalks. Whether that’s possible and whether that’s a reality is still to be determined. We’re looking at geothermal heating and cooling for the entire development to support that. So we’re trying to ensure that new developments are designed for all four seasons.
Would you say then that "Winterpeg" is ready to embrace its role as a leading winter city on the world stage? Are we there yet, and what needs to happen next?
Ready to own winter? Here are some ideas for ways to get outside in Winnipeg this coming season.
Ready to own winter? Here are some ideas for ways to get outside in Winnipeg this coming season:
Warming Huts v.2019: An Arts + Architecture Competition on Ice
This year’s Warming Huts installation will include Norwegian ice musician Terje Isungset, who will perform using instruments made of ice from the Red River. For a complete list of warming huts featured this year, visit warminghuts.com.
Winterfest at FortWhyte Alive
Jan. 20, 2019 — 11 a.m.- 4 p.m.
Come down to FortWhyte Alive for a day of winter fun! Admission is free and events will include learn-to-ski workshops, guided snowshoe hikes and voyageur games! Bring your skates and sleds for skating on the pond and tobogganing down our Richardson Run.
Fire Yoga or Ice Yoga at FortWhyte Alive
* Dates TBD
Enjoy a yoga session outdoors around roaring flames (fire yoga) or out on our frozen lake (ice yoga). Led by Ash Bourgeois of WildPath. Afterwards, warm up around a fire and enjoy some local wild crafted tea. $17, $12 for FortWhyte Alive Members
Rent a Fat Bike and explore the Red River Mutual Trail
White Pine Bicycle Co.
Curious about winter cycling? Why not try renting a fat-tire bike to explore the Red River Mutual Trail. Fat bikes are a great way to get around in winter and can be rented for $25 per half-day from White Pine Bicycle Co. at The Forks’ Johnston Terminal.
Frostbite River Run
Jan. 27, 2019
Annual fundraiser for programming at Riverview Community Centre. Take part in a five-mile or five-kilometre run that meanders through Riverview onto the Red River Mutual Trail to The Forks and back.
Canad Inns Winter Wonderland
Red River Exhibition Park
Nov. 30 — Jan. 5, 2019 (Open daily, 6-9 p.m.)
A festive seasonal drive through light displays. The display features more than one million lights and more than two dozen different themed areas during a 2.5-km drive in the comfort of your car. Along the route, you can stop at the outdoor rink to enjoy a family skate or undertake the free horse-drawn sleigh ride on weekends.
Jackrabbits Learn-to-Ski for Kids
A national learn-to-ski program for youth that was developed in Winnipeg in 1975. Programs available at locations around Winnipeg. Visit Cross-Country Skiing of Manitoba’s website (ccsam.ca) for more information.
Bonny: The momentum is definitely there. But is Winnipeg a winter-city leader? In some ways, yes, when it comes to cultural programming and public events. Winnipeg has shown leadership, signing on to the international list of "Winter Cities" and hosting the Winter Cycling Congress in 2014. So we’re moving in the right direction and there is more that we can explore from an infrastructure and programming perspective to make the most of Winnipeg in the winter.
MacKay: I think we are on the cusp of something amazing that the rest of the world is starting to take notice of, and which Winnipeggers are fully adopting. Our role at The Forks is to be a test bed for these ideas and best practices in winter urbanism, and to showcase to the world that Winnipeg is a leader and this is how you can work with what the season has to offer to create memorable places and experiences.
Wyndels: The reality is, winter is with us for nearly six months of the year. If we can’t learn to embrace and celebrate it, who can? And there is so much to celebrate! We must have one of the most beautiful winters out of all the major cities in Canada. It’s sunny more often than not, the air is fresh and being outside you just feel alive. There is something truly special about winter in Winnipeg.
Watson: With all the publicity that Winnipeg has been getting around our winters lately, I’m really starting to see a drive in our communities to get outside and seek out new ways to enjoy winter. For a while, we felt bad about our winters. Now we’re ready to own it!