Big Idea 2011: Building The Winter City

Improving quality of life means we need to embrace the cold.

After a record snowfall, many Edmontonians are likely dreading the return of snow clearing, snarled traffic, impassable walkways, bitter cold and long, dark nights. But should they?

“We’ve gone into denial about winter, and it costs us in a lot of ways,” says Coun. Ben Henderson. “There’s something about urban planning in a winter context that we misunderstood because we thought we could beat winter.”

Other northern cities around the world embrace winter as part of their identities and, he argues, so should Edmonton if it wants to remain a competitive city offering good quality of life to residents, tourists and businesses alike. “We have to make our city exciting and attractive … for more than just one season.”

Making central public spaces desirable to live by helps densify the core, but in Edmonton cold weather gives malls an advantage. “You don’t have to move inside just because it’s winter. Create places where people want to go and it comes naturally,” suggests Kristina Williams, Swedish consul and Avenue Top 40 Under 40 alumna. Her hometown of stersund, Sweden hosts Vinterparken, an annual, season-long winter park with cafs, skating rinks, ice sculptures, Nordic trails, shopping and other outdoor attractions.

On sunny afternoons in Helsinki, Finland, patrons line up at -20 C to sit on outdoor patios and enjoy warm drinks. But patios in Finland are designed for four seasons, not just one. The patios are south-facing and the awnings are engineered to reflect sun onto the seating areas, while deflecting wind. Warming seat cushions, heaters and complimentary blankets add coziness.

“The European mindset around winter is different,” says Henderson.

Changing attitudes was part of the intent behind founding the Winter Light Festival in 2009. As Henderson points out, Edmonton’s lively summers didn’t happen by chance either. It grew out of deliberate civic, business and community efforts in the ’70s and ’80s resulting in Edmonton’s reputation as the “Festival City.” He stresses that we do the same with our winter season if we want to continue to attract tourism and talent to our city, and improve quality of life for residents.

That’s the impetus behind a new “winter city” strategy the City will present for public input this coming season. The goal is to create a city that is more active in winter. From an urban design standpoint, that may be as simple as redirecting lighting to cast more welcoming glows; widening sunnier, south-facing sidewalks; or encouraging businesses to install outdoor flame urns or heat lamps for warmth and attractiveness. Other considerations, include installing mobile ice plants at outdoor rinks to prevent melting on warm days; constructing novel attractions like ice hotels and snow saunas; and enhancing winter commuting and recreational access for skiers, pedestrians and cyclists.

Above all, says Winter Light director Pamela Anthony, we need to accept the reality of our northern climate. “Winter city environment has to be a baseline for development [or] we’ll deserve a future of cold streets and urban sprawl.”

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