Cold Comfort

Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver” (My country is not a country, it is winter).

This evocative opening line by Quebecois singer/songwriter Gilles Vigneault resonates with many Canadians. While such pan-Canadian appropriation may not sit well with the author’s sovereigntist allegiance, the second verse promises faithfulness to his father’s inclusive home built in “the white ceremony where the snow marries wind” such “That one will come from the other seasons / To build next to it.”

Unfortunately, despite the song’s romantic sentiment, conventional urban planning continues to omit consideration of both the needs and opportunities of cold weather urban environments. An imported summer bias permeates the profession and this has distorted how Canadian cities are perceived and planned. Although the Winter Cities Movement, with deep roots in Canada, has been advocating change for over 35 years, the application of a “winter lens” remains at best marginalized, at worst ignored. Indeed the profession has contributed significantly, along with the media, to a national attitude to winter as a burden, as a problem to be endured and literally externalized.

“We have always designed for summer conditions, it has been the kind of default position,” says Sue Holdsworth, an urban planner and Winter City Coordinator for Edmonton. When asked if the planning profession is addressing winter in cities, the answer by Simon O’Byrne, a vice president at Stantec and a major contributor to both Edmonton’s and Saskatoon’s progressive approach to winter, is quick: “it is not.” As an example, the 2011 progressive official plan for Canada’s coldest winter city, Winnipeg, starts well, stating that the prairie city “is a winter city, a sunshine city and a river city. The diversity of weather we experience, along with our topography, creates unique planning and development opportunities and challenges.” Yet winter disappears from the rest of the document and all images save one are from the height of summer.

At best, interest is picking up again with a new generation of planners and city officials, says Patrick Coleman, a Michigan-based architect instrumental in the Winter Cities Movement almost since its inception. Yet after over three decades at least tangentially on urban planning’s radar, “a robust evidence base for [winter] design principles is missing,” indeed, “is dated and rather sporadic,” writes British architectural researcher David Chapman, who has spent considerable time exploring how far-north Swedish cities handle winter.

Perhaps Chapman is right, more research will add new considerations and evolving technologies to build better winter cites. There is, however, already enough evidence and knowledge for a sophisticated urban planning approach that not only makes winter more “tolerable,” but also makes it a dynamic, healthy and creative season that contributes to quality of life in the urban environment. While the earlier Winter Cities Movement faltered, cities like Edmonton and Saskatoon are again embracing the fourth season.

The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of the Winter Cities Movement in Canada

Frequently writers on winter cities note that winter was once embraced, often providing children with their most fond memories of growing up. But as the car came to dominate planning, winter became a burden to be externalized. In 1978, however, the first Livable Winter Cities conference convened in Minneapolis followed by attendee Bill Rogers’ book Winter Cities (1980). The first Northern Intercity Conference then took place in Sapporo, Japan in 1982. Out of the latter emerged the still operating World Winter Cities Association for Mayors, a largely (but not exclusively) Asian organization. In the same year, the Livable Winter Cities Association (LWCA) was founded in Canada by Norman Pressman, now retired from the University of Waterloo but who remains a legend in the movement. In 1986 a watershed Winter City Forum and Showcase was held in Edmonton attended by 400 delegates from around the world. Both associations would hold regular conferences over the next couple of decades including in Montréal (1992) and Winnipeg (1996).

An important evolution took place, Coleman notes. Initial support for glass domes over streets and enclosed, elevated pedestrian systems was replaced by calls (for example , in Pressman’s 2004 book Shaping Cities for Winter) to embrace winter through appropriate urban design and architecture. Much of this rethinking signalled the influence of Denmark’s influential architect and urban designer Jan Gehl. In his seminal 1993 article, “A Good City All Seasons” in Winter Cities, the LWCA’s newsletter, Gehl argued that “most northern cities do not work poorly in the winter; rather they work poorly in all four seasons.” In other words, livable winter cities could only emerge in tandem with a complete restructuring of urban form and municipal priorities.

Notwithstanding the attention — if not action — then being given to New Urbanism, this only placed the ideals of the winter city movement further outside the dominate priorities of urban planners and their political bosses. Thus, notes Chapman, the burdensome volunteer-only base required to sustain the LWCA led to its folding as the new millennium got underway. In 2008, however, he and a few Canadians created the Winter Cities Institute, an online site providing information, resources and networking opportunities.

While a few smaller communities such as Fort St. John, B.C. did go so far as to establish winter design guidelines in 2000, the re-emergence of the Winter Cities Movement in Canada is again being led by Edmonton. While its large, internationally attended Winter Shake-up Conference last February grabbed media headlines, it also signalled that city’s remarkable rethinking of winter that started in 2009 (see sidebar). But first, why is addressing winter in the city so important?

Why Addressing Winter in the City is Important

How we perceive and experience winter is crucial for most Canadian cities. First, of course, is the basic idea that the urban environment should and can be a much more pleasant place to live during what is a significant portion of the year. Second, but closely tied to this idea, is the economic implications of the creative economy based on city states whose prosperity depends on attracting an increasingly sophisticated urban workforce. “Winter cities can no longer afford to appear lifeless for a quarter of the year,” writes Jay Walljasper of Projects for Public Spaces. “A vital local culture…all year long… is essential for a dynamic, prosperous community.” Third, winter can be the Achilles heel for the healthy city (Building, December 2015 – January 2015). Evidence reveals, for example, that decreased activity typical in winter increases the average body mass index. Lower levels of socialization in winter also intensify isolation, taking a toll on mental well-being, says occupational therapist Robin Mazumder.

Fourth, an aging population and demands for greater accessibility for persons with disabilities, when combined with poor and unsafe winter travel conditions (rather than cold itself), increases risks. Even in the much tougher accessibility law environment of the U.S., says the Centre for Inclusive Design, there has been a lack of interest in pursuing climate responsive design. Enhanced and safer connectivity through improved winter walkability, secure winter cycling and accessible transit are required. Finally, and not incidentally, both the ballooning municipal costs associated with winter servicing engendered by typical urban sprawl patterns and the demand for sustainable urban design contributes significantly to the need to change our winter city experience.      

But what is a Winter City?

The Winter Cities Movement has defined a “winter city” as simply one in which the average temperature in January is below zero. But the level of severity around this norm varies significantly. Above this standard, cities like Vancouver, Copenhagen and many other European cities, oft-cited for their extensive winter programming, certainly experience extended daytime twilight and long nights, raw moisture-laden temperatures and occasional snow and ice. Toronto and Helsinki are similar but with colder averages and more snow and ice while Winnipeg, Edmonton and Québec City have longer and much more intensely cold winters. Ottawa falls in between the last two groups.

But not only does the length and severity of winter conditions vary significantly, each city region has its own unique mix of defining elements such as snowfall, freeze/thaw, wind, darkness, sun/overcast and geography. In terms of the latter, for example, water and how it is present can play a vital role. Authenticity, or responding appropriately to each city’s unique climactic conditions, sense of place and cultural references is vital, while the challenges, opportunities and appropriate responses to winter conditions vary significantly. 

The Frozen North: Myths and Urban Legends

But there are also myths and urban legends about even Canada’s coldest cities that lead to poor planning decisions not based on evidence. These can be grouped into three myths: severity; discomfort; and a reverse winter bias. In terms of severity, the word that comes up most frequently in interviews and in articles is “outlier.” Simply put, this means that we tend to define our winters by the relatively rare outlier days in which the winter weather is most extreme.

Edmonton Councillor Ben Henderson, a leader in that city’s Winter City Movement, as well as Coleman and O’Byrne, all hammer home this point. Henderson and O’Byrne even met with local Edmonton media to encourage less emphasis on extremes and more on averages and means. A review of scientific weather facts for Canada’s coldest cities supports their argument, for example, Ottawans frequently refer to -30˚C winter temperatures yet on a yearly average the National Capital does not record a single low of this severity while Edmonton records but three. Even in Winnipeg, the average daytime temperature for December, January and February is        -9.3˚C while in Edmonton it is -4.4˚C, temperatures that can even support an outside “patio culture.”

The second myth is that temperature defines the winter city. In fact, wind constantly tops the list of negative comfort factors along with perceptions of safety related particularly to ice and slush (therefore, walkability). A 2009 study, for example, found that these factors kept middle-aged and older people indoors while cold temperatures had little impact. It is a point made by Holdsworth who has examined Oulu, a far north Finnish city with a remarkable 26 per cent winter cycling level. As O’Byrne notes, “If it is a blue sky and -15˚C with no wind and the sun is in your face it can be surprisingly comfortable to be out for an extended period.”

Finally, the very moniker “Winter City” distorts reality. Most Canadian winter cities exist in strong four-season environments, frequently with hot summers (dry or humid) with pronounced spring and fall swing seasons. (It is also usually forgotten that many southern cities suffer summer conditions that make outside living equally problematic.) A related perception is the notion of a single “winter season.” Supported by Finland’s approach, Holdsworth and Henderson say winter is best understood as four sub-seasons that include: late fall; the festive season; cold/dark winter; and early spring. Canadians, say those interviewed, do December’s festive season really quite well, underuse the swing seasons and struggle with January and February.

Three-Focus Strategy for Better Winter Cities

Revitalization of the quality of life in winter cities requires three focuses: attitude; programming; and the built environment.  

Attitude: Every fall it starts. An avalanche of commercials and advertisements of cars smacked by vicious winter weather, families huddled away in weather-reinforced homes and winter-rescued people escaping to bucolic Caribbean resorts. Survive, hunker down and escape. What is required, argue those advocating for vibrant liable winter cities, is change – some say a return – to an attitude of embracing rather than simply enduring winter.

The intensive consultation process underlying Edmonton’s rethinking of winter was also about changing minds about winter. “There is a big culture shift that has to go with this,” says Henderson. “We had a long conversation with the public on what they wanted to see and that in itself challenged everyone to rethink what they thought about winter and created excitement in itself.” Not incidental was a realization that public parks had to be reconsidered as summer-only public places. As such, their programming and the services provided – food and drink, trail maintenance, warming huts and lighting – also became an issue. 

Programming; Québec City, blessed with an intimate, pedestrian-oriented historic core now rapidly expanding outside the city walls, has long understood the importance of programming for winter. Conversely, O’Byrne and Henderson argue, Edmonton (and they could add cities like Winnipeg and Ottawa) focus on developing intensive, continuous summer programming. “For a long time,” says O’Byrne, “we put all our money into summer festivals and made sure we kept our summers busy in terms of program activities. But we don’t put nearly enough time into wintertime.” Such programming must be varied, last over weeks not days and be exterior oriented, overlapping and authentic.   

The Built Environment: In many ways, changing attitudes coupled with more intensive programming may be the low-hanging fruit for fostering the winter city. It is probably no coincidence that the waning of the Winter City Movement took place at the same time it was moving away from creating interior “protected” winter environments to the argument that the car/traffic engineer-dominated approach to urban form is a major barrier to enjoying the winter city. Similarly, its re-emergence is taking place at a time when an increasing number of Canadian cities are rethinking urban design and the role of the car, whether the focus is the healthy city; the 18-hour creative city; transit-oriented development; sustainability; municipal costs or the winter city. Indeed, goes the argument, there is a real synergy among these objectives even if the planning profession has come late to the table.

A Built Environment for a Four Season Healthy City

Like a house renovation, realizing the optimum winter city is enhanced if one can start with good bones. Unfortunately, also like so many renovations, the underlying structure of many cities turns out to be badly corroded. There is an overwhelming consensus among theorists and professionals alike that successful winter city urban form should be mixed-use with density and connectivity (walkable, transit oriented and cycling) linked by engaging and interactive streets, alleys, parks and public spaces. Architecture, shaped perhaps by form-based zoning, must engage the street, respect prevailing weather conditions, and enrich the pedestrian experience. All these components must be attuned to a place’s “authenticity,” respecting geography, culture, and light conditions. Only within this context can the unique implications of a winter city climate be successfully addressed. An early step might be a radical re-think of covered pedway systems and even an exploration of their dismantling. But once outside, attention to how urban morphology impacts our experience of winter conditions is of primary importance.

Wind: As noted above, wind is perhaps the most problematic variable in cold cities. In response, streets and pathways, preferably with short blocks, need to be laid out to deflect prevailing winds. Building form with setbacks must be designed to minimize micro-wind “storms” at street level. Problematic perhaps for Canada, building heights should be limited (perhaps using Helsinki’s seven storey maximum as a model). Understanding how the built environment and wind impact on drifting snow is also important. At a smaller scale, transit shelters, evergreen trees, other landscaping elements, patio wind screens, sidewalk canopies and strategically placed wind screens can ensure the wind effect is significantly reduced.

Temperature: Without wind and with proper clothing, temperature is less a factor than sometimes believed but by no means inconsequential. Heated transit shelters, fire pits in public spaces, patio heaters and quilt throws, attention to outdoor furniture materials, mid-block pedestrian crossings to shorten trips, warming huts and hot beverage kiosks in public parks are some examples to reduce the impact of cold temperatures. Some cities even support winter fashion shows to encourage smarter approaches to dressing comfortably.

Built form must maximize sun exposure and create warmer micro-climates. In Saskatoon, O’Byrne’s team has proposed turning the core’s wind protected narrow alleys into warmer animated commercial arteries. Like in many European cities, he says, “narrow alleys …capture warmer air and keep it close to the ground for better pedestrian comfort.” In addition, outdoor electric heaters can add both “sparkle and warmth.”

Snowfall: Snow and the automobile have been treated as natural enemies, and when designing cities the latter has been the victor. In addition to understanding building-defined snow drifting and protection for entrances, street design, says Coleman, needs to be rethought to accommodate storage without obliterating sidewalks, cycle routes and public spaces. Clearing pedestrian and cycle routes must receive higher priority. Oulu, for example, guarantees bike trails are plowed by 7:00am using a plow that creates two tracks to accommodate cyclists and skiers.

Stantec’s City Centre Plan for Saskatoon proposes a complete restructuring of 21st and 23rd Street, two key arteries originally designed to be wide enough for a horse drawn wagon to do a U-turn. Now, traffic lanes will be greatly reduced to permit a linear park with sheltered laneways and bike paths along with space to receive the plowed snow. These year-long public spaces will unite a cultural district, showcase the historic Delta Bessborough and provide animated winter gathering spaces.

Freeze/Thaw: As outlined above, concerns about safety play a central role in whether or not people venture outside in winter. Cities like Ottawa and Edmonton that experience frequent freeze/thaws are particularly vulnerable to ice and slush. While street awnings can help, Montréal is in the process of introducing heated sidewalks on rue Sainte-Catherine, and this winter Edmonton is piloting an extended “ice street” to allow commuting by skating as is done on Ottawa’s Rideau Canal. One major design problem with many Canadian street corners is their propensity to cause water and slush to gather precisely at crosswalks during thaws.

Light/Darkness: The winter season is cold, but sunlight can also be in short supply with extended dusk-like periods and intense darkness at night. First, this means the built environment must be structured to maximize sunshine, particularly relevant in cities like Edmonton with many sunny winter days. Perhaps the most spectacular response to the absence of direct winter sun light is by the Norwegian town of mountain shaded Rjukan which installed three large, solar-powered, computer-controlled mirrors to reflect sunrays into the town square.

Second, attention to night lighting – made economical by low energy LED – can transform the city in winter into a beguiling wonderland while enhancing safety. Montréal’s Luminothérapie program of interactive, light-based winter art installations is an example of using light to draw large crowds outdoors and downtown. In Edmonton, a crowd-funded project turned its High Level Bridge into an ever-morphing, now-permanent light sculpture, and as the city’s draft winter design guidelines point out, “snow accumulation during extended darkness reflects light and brightens the outdoors. The darkness is an opportunity to showcase northern creativity.” Edmonton’s creative lighting strategy is almost ready for approval.

Colour: Like light, colour has the ability to enliven the winter landscape as images of St. John’s, Reykjavik, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Kulusuk in Greenland, and Norway’s Longyearbyen and Alesund attest. All are on one or more lists of the most colourful places in the world. Edmonton’s winter design guidelines advises: “Use contrasting or saturated colour palettes on building façades to highlight pedestrian-scaled building massing, entrances and improve the visual interest of streets.” Lighter colours on south façades, it adds, help to reflect light into the street.

Geography/Landscape: Specific geographies can have a significant impact on all of the above elements. Building in tune with rather than bulldozing natural protection and retaining or re-establishing native vegetation like evergreens are required. Water in particular can play a crucial role in animating the winter city, Ottawa’s Rideau Canal skateway being the best Canadian example as well as Winnipeg’s Assiniboine River with its internationally renowned design competition each year for warming huts. Landscape architecture must also carefully respond to use in winter conditions including such attributes as frozen water fountains. Edmonton is promoting a winter garden program similar to the summer Cites in Bloom program.

At the Tipping Point?

Urban design in general may be reaching a significant tipping point as cities wrestle with unsustainable costs, a radical shift in economic models and changing demographics. For Canadian cites, a key to realizing a more livable, sustainable and prosperous urban environment lies in a more finely-attuned awareness of the needs of a winter city. It is clear that to do so successfully requires a blend of attitude change, strong programming and perhaps most difficult, a decisive change in how we design our built environment.





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