Winter City Q&A pt. 3: Patrick Coleman, founder and CEO of Winter Cities Institute; principal, North of 45

What has been the history behind the Winter Cities Institute?

In the late ‘70s there was a small group meeting in Minneapolis called the Committee on Urban Environment. After the meeting, two guys were standing on a parking structure looking out at the city and said “we certainly don’t do much for our cities in winter.” One of those gentlemen was Bill Rogers and he published a book in 1980 called Winter Cities Book, now out of print.  It talked about the small things we could do to make the city more livable in winter.  In the early ‘80s there was a couple of international symposiums, one in Minneapolis organized by Bill Rogers and one organized in Sapporo, Japan by the city’s mayor.  Also, in 1982, the Livable Winter Cities Association was created in Canada by Norman Pressman. In 1986 the first Winter City Forum and Showcase was held in Edmonton [that was] attended by four hundred delegates from around the world.  A second one was held in 1988.

There were actually two organizations conducting conferences over the next 20 years: The Livable Winter Cities Association and The World Livable Winter Cities Association of Mayors based in Sapporo. [The latter’s] membership is primarily Asian but they did have some conferences in Canada when they did have a lot more member cities from Canada. There was a conference held in Montréal in 1992, as well as in Winnipeg in 1996.

There was momentum but things then kind of faded a bit in the early 2000s. The Livable Winter Cities Association, a strictly volunteer organization of which I had been president for a few years, lost the energy to keep going. I also think the 9/11 terrorist attacks changed people’s perceptions about air travel and going to conferences.

After the Winter Cities Association folded, I made a pitch to the remaining board members to reinvent it as the Winter Cities Institute, an online source of information about inner city planning and urban design and everything else encompassed in that idea of livable winter cities. And we did that and have continued to grow the [site].  There was a big conference last winter in Edmonton that was very well attended. [Edmonton has] launched its winter city strategy and urban design guidelines which are state of the art on how to make the city more livable in winter time.

The architect Jan Gehl from Copenhagen has been a long-time supporter of winter cities but he also says you have to look at the city in all seasons not just winter. Copenhagen does not have the severity of winters that we face but he has helped place emphasis on good urban design. His impact has been profound.

Is it important to see winter as four sub-seasons in places like Edmonton?

Yes, this is key. They did a really nice job with their strategy and they had a lot of community involvement.  What is interesting to me was that they saw the need to change the attitudes and perceptions both within and without as crucial for them to move forward as a leading city in the world.  I was involved at the beginning and participated in their conference last winter.

How must urban planning as a profession change in response to the needs of the winter city?

The Urban Winter Design Guidelines in Edmonton really take the idea that here is how we want to go forward. For a long time, urban design and the planning profession worked on the idea that what you really needed to do was to shelter people from the cold. So in Toronto and Montréal they have their vast underground system in their retail districts and in Edmonton, Calgary and Minneapolis they built these [systems] at the second level of the downtowns. So you have these bridges at the second level connecting buildings, skywalks, skyways, plus 15s whatever you want to call them. That has impacts and today people are questioning whether or not that was the best way to go as it tends to take activity off the street; it turns our backs on winter.  I think sometimes we make people just a little wimpier while winter actually adds to [personal] satisfaction.

So you spend your days indoors shopping, etc. When you need to go outside it is to get into your car, drive home and clean your driveway. The new approach is to promote winter as a positive aspect to get people and urban design to make outdoors more comfortable, at least for much of the year.  If it is minus 40 in Winnipeg there is not a lot that you can do to mitigate that cold except to shelter people from wind.

A lot of the problem is driven by media from the south telling us how cold it is. I hear it all the time “how can you stand to live up there with six months of winter and snow and cold?”  I kind of wonder how they can live without that. You need to be happy with where you are at, don’t you think? They now have this “feels like” wind chill measure of the effect on bare skin.

[In terms of urban planning] you cannot use the same cross section for a street that you use in Florida in Canada or the north U.S. There are also unique issues like room for snow storage. These [so-called] new-fangled ideas about place making, I call it just good planning.  But I think you always have to use your context when planning a new neighbourhood and something I don’t think New Urbanism takes into account is climate.  Certainly the principle of higher density, mixed use, walkability and bicycles, [these are] all important stuff for northern cities.

So each winter city is different, unique?    

Absolutely, and that is why I go back to the idea of the need to [always consider] the specifics of a region when we talk about urban design and architecture. We need to throw a single model out the window; and, that is one thing on which the winter cities movement has had an impact.   It is getting people to recognize that [each city] is different.  Norman Pressman defined a winter city as a place where the average January temperature is below freezing. I think that is good, but then again every winter city [that meets that definition] is different. Here we are not so cold because we are near Lake Superior and this moderates the temperature; but, we get this snowfall that would blow the minds of most people.

I lived in Anchorage for three years and they have extensive green belts and bike trails that they groom in the winter for multi-use. People ski, walk, run, bike, skidoo, and just about everything goes on these trails in the winter time and it is wonderful.  People are out there all the time, all day and in the evenings.  A lot of the trails are lit.  We have lit cross country trails here and it is wonderful.

Do you see an awareness emerging in urban planning or is it tangential?

It is really picking up, there is a whole idea of livable cities that has caught on and also the New Urbanist movement. One thing I noticed last winter in Edmonton was that it was like the concept of winter cities [was] being introduced to a whole new generation and they are very excited about it.  In Edmonton there is a group working to create ski links so you can ski to their rapid transit.  There is another proposal to create a “freezeway,” as they call it, which would be a skating pathway that people could use for pleasure but also for commuting.  There are new and creative ideas coming forward and a whole new generation of people and city leaders that are getting turned on to this.

What is the future of the movement? Is it going to be more institutionalized?

In the U.S., winter cities apply to a pretty small area. Even in Michigan, Detroit is not really a winter city.  They get snow, yes; they get some cold but are they a winter city?  They would not consider themselves that.  In Cleveland there is the Kent State University Centre for Outdoor Living Design.  They have a little group there with David Jurca, who have really jumped on this winter cities’ bandwagon and published a book called Coldscapes. They had a little design competition and the “freezeway” rose to the top.

In the context of livable cities, I am speaking next month to a conference on healthy cities because winter is a time when people tend to be more inactive because they don’t have the opportunity to get out and enjoy the winter, particularly in those marginal kind of winter areas like Toronto. When you don’t have good skiing or skating outdoors, and especially for people who have mobility issues, winter is a very difficult time because we still are not there in terms of putting pedestrian on an equal footing with cars.  They plow the bike paths first in Oulu, can you imagine!  Here, people would be outraged, right?

Pat Coleman

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