How Urban Design Can Make Winter a Little Less Grim
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How Urban Design Can Make Winter a Little Less Grim

Edmonton aims for a culture of year-round patios.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

What would make waiting for the bus more bearable when the temperature dips below -20 C?

It’s a routine scenario in Edmonton, and one that civic leaders are taking seriously as both a challenge to quality of life and an opportunity to develop distinctively urban winter experiences.

Perhaps heaters could cut the chill at transit shelters or colourful lighting could brighten the streetscape. What if hot chocolate was available for pedestrians and trails were maintained to encourage commuting by cross country ski or sled?

Although these interventions may sound whimsical, they are all on the table thanks to Edmonton’s WinterCity Strategy [PDF]. The document is the culmination of more than two years of brainstorming and myth busting that drew on ideas from local residents, politicians, private sector partners, and international experts.

The strategy was endorsed by council in 2012 and consists of ten goals that fall under four pillars: winter life, winter design, winter economy, and winter story. But Edmonton’s commitment to becoming a winter city goes beyond catchy categories. The strategy contains exciting ideas about how to animate public spaces in the coldest months of the year and create places that are welcoming in all seasons.

For instance, transportation planners typically talk about right of way or the allocation of street space for use by pedestrians, vehicles, and infrastructure. However, the winter city movement has introduced the term “white of way” to refer to areas that are deliberately not cleared in order to facilitate other forms of travel: imagine picking up groceries on cross country skis or taking kids to school by kick sled.

While many municipalities already provide regulations for the use of outdoor recreation facilities, Edmonton is going one step further by developing guidelines for outdoor fire pits. The idea is to allow people to warm up while enjoying activities outside. Fire pits also have the added benefit of bringing light to dark winter days.

It’s all part of an ambitious effort to turn Edmonton’s infamous winters into an asset that improves quality of life for residents and perhaps even attracts seasonal sightseers. In December, council approved a new winter design policy. The guidelines [PDF] are based around five principles, as illustrated in the diagram below.


Image from the City of Edmonton

Essentially, the ways that buildings (and the spaces between them) are designed and oriented can reduce the windchill and increase exposure to sunlight. In addition to natural light, coloured lights and bright building materials can make for a more appealing cityscape, particularly after sunset. All of these measures are supported by infrastructure such as shelters, signage, and street furniture that invite outdoor activities all year round.

Toronto can’t compete with Edmonton for the severity of local winters, but the city can still learn from the analysis of how cold weather shapes different aspects of public life. The City of Toronto does not currently have its own winter strategy or design guidelines, but it does provide resources for indoor and outdoor activities all winter long.

As experiences from Edmonton suggest, frequent festivals and copious amounts of hot chocolate are simple ways to lift spirits as temperatures drop. But creating winter cities also requires tackling more complex issues because harsh weather has a disproportionate impact on a city’s most vulnerable citizens.

Although in Edmonton one of the strategy’s goals is to “provide more opportunities for outdoor activity,” it’s worth noting that people who are homeless face very different choices about spending time outside. For this reason, winter attractions must be accompanied by essential services for people who are hit hardest by the cold.

Similarly, experimenting with “white of ways” opens up new forms of active transportation for some but should not come at the expense of clear sidewalks for seniors and others who already face a higher risk of falling each winter. Edmonton’s strategy also acknowledges that winter can be a challenging time for newcomers who may not be accustomed to cold climates or familiar with activities like skating.

In this context, urban design represents an opportunity for not just seasonal innovation but also renewed social inclusion. Winter cities have the potential to create spectacle and foster physical activity, yet for too many people, freezing temperatures are a matter of survival. Toronto had five extreme cold weather alerts in the month of December alone, and there are only two 24-hour warming centres in the city, excluding Metro Hall. As we reimagine the possibilities of urban space in winter, let’s remember that tackling precarious housing also requires creative thinking.