Melting Hearts and Minds in Edmonton

If Edmonton was Canada’s ground zero for the Winter Cities Movement in the 1980s, it has roared back to the forefront this decade when it set about to answer the question “what would make you fall in love with winter in Edmonton?” When the mayor asked city councillors for their pet initiatives, Ben Henderson responded: to stop pretending winter doesn’t exist. “It was really a realization that the next challenge for the city was taking on winter with the same intensity that we had taken on the quality of life in the summer,” he told me in an interview. Not incidentally, he has also championed the theme of Edmonton 2040 – Prosperity and Creativity.

The mandate was handed not to planning but Community Initiatives in the Community Services department. Community Initiatives, says Sue Holdsworth, Edmonton’s Winter City Coordinator, understood a winter vision/culture had to incorporate all parts of what the city does rather than just programming or infrastructure or budget. A winter think tank populated by high profile community leaders and experts was launched in December 2011. After a year of intensive public consultation, absolutely crucial say both Henderson and Holdsworth, the task force issued its report, titled For the Love of Winter, which set out 10 basic principles.

An advisory council was formed that included some original think tank members, some new participants and, crucially, all senior city departmental administrators to serve as “implementation champions.” The council’s primary task was to develop an implementation plan, again based on extensive consultation. A year later, The Love of Winter: WinterCity Strategy Implementation Plan with 54 actions was tabled and approved by council on September 10, 2013. In terms of the built environment, a Winter Design Working Group, working with the planning department, then drafted Winter Design Guidelines currently nearing council approval.

Its five core principles include:

  • Incorporating design strategies to block wind
  • Maximizing exposure to sunshine through orientation and design
  • Using colour to enliven the winterscape
  • Creating visual interest with light
  • Providing infrastructure that supports a desired winter life

The city is already working on partnerships with the tourism and hospitality industry, the Chamber of Commerce and developers. Henderson believes developers are starting to apply a winter lens and councillors always ask how neighbourhood plans and proposed projects have considered winter city implications. “Our design committee has been asking for nightscaping and about how buildings work in winter.” Most importantly, say both he and Holdsworth, has been the surprisingly rapid change in attitude. “We thought it would take a long time to start shifting our culture…[at least] a generation; but we have noticed in a few short years a big difference in our city already,” says Holdsworth.

Guidelines are just that, however, and Henderson admits that what will be like-to-have (guidelines) versus must-have (regulations) for private development remains undecided. The massive city-controlled Blatchford community (Building, February-March 2013) constitutes in Holdsworth’s words, “a shining example” of winter city design. Henderson, however, is less sanguine about the equally massive 25-acre Ice District project by the Katz Group, now in construction in Edmonton’s core. Despite its large exterior piazza, he believes the area’s extensive interior Pedway network repeats the mistakes of the past and undermines the winter business model. “We have areas like old Strathcona and White Avenue where we have traditional fine grain store fronts and it is booming in winter time, “ he says. “People happily shop there yet there is not a Pedway in sight.”

These concerns notwithstanding, the international success of last February’s Winter Cities Shake-up conference suggests Edmonton is increasingly viewed as an emerging leader of a revitalized Winter Cities Movement.

To read more about Edmonton’s strategies for addressing winter, read the full interviews with:




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