Winter City Q&A pt. 1: Ben Henderson, Ward 8 Councillor, City of Edmonton

Why did you select the Winter City when the Mayor asked what was your priority?

Maybe it was a memory. People presume that the things we do here in summertime sprung fully formed; but I remember back in the ‘70s a great deal of effort was put into summer in the city. If you bring someone here to the city in the summer, Edmonton is a really easy sell. We had ignored winter, we had written it off, we had thought the answer was to make everything go inside and pretend that winter doesn’t exist. In order to cut our costs, we had written off our public spaces, we had stopped supporting public parks and yet we wondered why people saw winter as a bleak experience in Edmonton.

It had not historically been the case. 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. We had made some poor choices, such as trying to make it seem that winter didn’t exist. In part, we also recognized that the architecture and urban design choices we had made reflected a kind of North America homogenization that was not appropriate to our climate. Designing our city the same way you designed Phoenix was nonsense; yet that is what we had done in many cases and it was making it very expensive to maintain and it was very difficult for people to enjoy. It just was not practical for our climate. We had an opportunity to say to ourselves, “no, we have a unique climate here we want to take advantage of it, we want to understand how it works for us and how to design for it.”

Has urban planning as a profession failed to understand winter in the city?

I think it has and to some extent this remains the case. We are, however, getting change here. In our own planning department the planners now understand that winter has to be a consideration. Whether or not we are completely there yet in terms of developing a complete vernacular for what that means, I think we are well on the way. I think the Winter Design Guidelines are getting us there. There is recognition here in in Edmonton that it is something that you have to do. Whether it is fully within our practice I am not sure, but that is the next challenge, to make it a part of the way we are.

What has been the shift in attitudes and “culture” around winter?

It is also a part of changing our minds about winter. There is a big culture shift that has to go with this. This was a cultural shift that we thought would be the biggest challenge but in actual fact it has move much faster than we thought it would. I think people were ready for it, the public was ready. It appealed in part to the way Edmontonians think of themselves. They were feed up with not taking winter on and had been talking about it for a long time. And, I think it was the different [means] we used to come up with the strategy. 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 it created excitement in itself.

I think there was also a younger generation that was coming into their own in the city. We are a young city in terms of our professionals and they were ready for it; and, they could not understand why we had not done that before. The one part of the population that got this instantly was the kids. They love winter and always have but somewhere down the line we had lost the playfulness of winter. So a lot of energy came from large families with kids and they are taking up a lot of the recreational side of things. It felt like the grumpiness was ready to go away and people would take on the challenge.

What has been the role of the media in terms of myth and meteorology?

We took all the weathercasters out to lunch and had a conversation with them. In some way they were a sympathetic ear indicating that it was not so much them as the “throws” they were getting from their anchor people. I think there has been a bit of a change in that. Ironically, we now have a humidex index in the summer to counter [wind chill] which is equally nefarious.

One of the big pieces was understanding this myth about how much nice weather we have in the summer versus how much bad weather we have in the winter. The winter had taken on legendary proportions which were not true. You ask the average Edmontonian what our winters are like and they would say six months with below -40˚ Celsius. In reality, I believe we have had four days below -40˚ in the last 10 years. In reality we were designing our cities for the worst days of winter which was nonsense as the worst days of winter are very rare events. In many ways the most miserable days of summer are as bad as the most miserable days of winter yet somehow we don’t let that hamstring us. We are simply not set to take advantage of those gorgeous winter days we get in Edmonton.

Edmonton’s winters are different from winters in other Canadian cities and that is one of the other lessons that cities need to learn. Each of us has individual climates; they are not all the same and the challenges are not all the same as a result. We get a lot of freeze-thaw-freeze-thaw and that is a major problem for us. Ottawa is probably similar. That is not so true of other prairie cities. We spent most of last January above zero.

It is not that Edmonton has never had major cold snaps, but they have become kind of legendary even if they are not that common. Most of our winters are substantially above bitter cold and thus you can get out. It is remarkably sunny in wintertime; indeed it is remarkably sunny around here all year round. We get a lot of sunlight here. The need is to be able to take advantage of this [by not rolling] up the carpet and putting everything away so that people could get outside and enjoy the really good [winter] days.

What will be the impact of the Winter Design Guidelines?

I don’t think there is anything in [the Guidelines] that has not been mentioned elsewhere. I think they are comprehensive and there may be some unique things that come out of our thinking. But it was also about having a look around the world to see what was out there and putting it together in a comprehensive way. Helsinki was one of the first cities I visited when we were first starting out on this as Finland is probably closest to our situation, although they have a much more severe issue with darkness than us.  [In Oulu, Finland] their biking infrastructure was amazing. They were the ones that said if you don’t clear your bike lanes by 7:00 in the morning people put their bikes away and never take them out again for the winter.

Between development of the Guidelines and its implementation there is the potential for much slippage. How do you make the guidelines effective?

I think that is going to be the next thing and I am not sure that we have entirely answered that question yet. We have guidelines now and the debate is how much of these should be turned into by-law or not. How much is it about encouraging good practice and how much is it about using zoning and regulations. There has been a debate on whether or not it makes more sense to encourage good practice or to mandate good practice. I don’t think we have answered that yet; it will be the next big challenge.

On the other hand, it may be about training and ensuring that the right questions always get asked. I think there are some areas where we need to say “no, it is in the city’s best interest to do it this way.” Certainly, around some of the ways you design roadways to allow snow clearing and things like that. We have been very sloppy and it is costing an awful lot.

How is the massive Blatchford development coming along in terms of the city’s approach? Has there been “compromises” as some report?

I don’t think there has been a lot of slippage and I have been watching that closely. The essence of it was to understand what the prevailing winds were and to block those winds and capture sunlight. I think all [those objectives] remains solid. The only thing that worried me that we changed slightly was the stagger of some of the streets. The idea that the plan was significantly compromised was overblown. I think there were some areas that needed a bit of tweaking. We have not backed off from net zero and carbon neutral. Part of the issue was we went from the guys who originally designed it to someone else doing the design implementation and that created some tension.

What are your priorities for ensuring implementation of the Guidelines?

There is a 10 year implementation plan for the larger strategy which we continue to plug away at. I really felt that if we did not keep key people in place that could keep our feet to the fire we would likely lose it. So we did do things like insist that we have an office of two to three people who are sort of our “Winter Czars” who ensure we move forward and [who] ask the hard questions. They may not be the most senior people in the organization, but they know I have their backs. That was about having someone in the organization whose only lens was winter that could push things through while also keeping an eye on all things related to winter.

But we also put together a committee that has senior branch managers on it as well as a couple of us from council. It is there to shepherd the whole thing through over the next 10 years and to keep it moving forward. It also has some sub-committees that are pushing new ideas and finding ways to make sure the implementation plan is followed through over the 10 years. So I did not want it to be a permanent body as it needs to become something that is second nature for the city to be asking and answering these questions. But there did need to be a period where that sense of championing was still there.

In terms of planning issues, I think that is something for us at council. How much should be regulation? It is about changing our vocabulary and quite frankly what I am interested in is an architectural tradition here that actually responds to the needs of the city rather than copies from elsewhere. The opportunity is there for architects.

We used our winter issues conference to roll out something pretty close to the final draft guidelines. We thought it a great chance when we were having all these experts from around the world to roll them out and to get their thoughts. I think the content is pretty much done.

What is the buy-in with the development sector in Edmonton?

Area plans and neighbourhood plans are presented to us rather than being done by our planners. We have not had one [plan] come to us over the last two or three years if not longer that does not have a pretty significant clause about the winter city and actually referencing the guidelines and how these have to be implemented. Making sure how that happens at the next stage remains the questions. At this stage, however, they have already bought in. In some places it will be driven by the public’s desire where it will be a selling feature such as being a neighbourhood that has a park that is anticipated to have an active use in winter time. Our design committee has been asking for nightscaping and about how buildings work in winter. I think there are going to be people who are going to start asking those questions

I think we have an opportunity to put our stamp on things and to explore our own situation rather than attempting to import ideas from elsewhere. We can even export the ideas we develop to elsewhere. My one caution to everyone would be the challenge is to understand the sense of your own place. We went around to the other winter cities to see what they were doing and to see if anyone else was asking these questions. It was surprising to me that they weren’t. Some of them were doing it instinctively and there were some choices that we knew were instinctive but they were not necessarily applicable tour situation. We needed to run these ideas by our own context to see if they made sense or not.

We spend a large chunk of our seasons in colder weather. We are not forcing people to say “this is fabulous, I can’t wait for winter to come along,” that would be naïve. But winter is going to come along and we should enjoy it and take full value and take advantage of all those things unique to it. That means thinking about how we design our cities to take advantage to that.

From where has the idea of winter as four sub-seasons come?

This idea came from Finland – they have dark winter and cold winter which are not the same time of the year. We are actually doing pretty well with dark winter; we just don’t realize that it is the festive seasons when we put up all the lights; and no one really complains about winter at that time of the year. Then we put it all away for some bizarre reason and start getting gloomy.  We actually focused mostly on that second part of winter.

The other thing that we focused on was not that there should be a lot of little indoor activity, which has always been very vital, but on the need also to embrace the outdoors. Locking ourselves in where we got neither fresh air nor daylight and then not understanding why we got gloomy was nonsense. Of course, you get depressed when you are never getting outside and you are never getting any daylight although there is tons of daylight out there. It was about making sure that the outdoor experience was also there for people, which was not saying that the indoor experience was not [important]. We were missing a huge piece about what the city was about, something that was unique to us that other people in other cities were really quite curious about.

How does the huge Ice District project respond to the needs of the winter city?

They like to think they do. I fought parts of it; I hate the winter garden which is yet another big Pedway [that is] nothing but keeping people indoors again. We spoke with Patrick LaForge [the former president and CEO of the Edmonton Oilers], and he said “you know we love the idea but you have to understand that our operation is not a winter sport because it is all indoors, you don’t wear a heavy coat when you are sitting in the arena.” There are some good things; they do have an open square that people will flow out to.

There will be some good winter design in there but it still has Pedways everywhere. I think they will find that a mistake because they will have created all these fabulous store fronts at the building bases that no one is going to use. We don’t have a large enough population here to support both an interior and exterior face. So the reality is the downtown looks dead, however, in reality there are thousands of people there but they are all indoors in the Pedways. You cannot expect retail to survive on the exterior when you have your population distributed that way. [In the past] we said we needed to do that because of the weather but what we ended up doing was major damage to the downtown.

We have areas like old Strathcona and White Avenue where we have traditional fine grain store fronts and it is booming in winter time. People happily shop there yet there is not a Pedway in sight. In some ways it has been about understanding that we had done this to ourselves. I am a little bit worried [although] they have understood this at the arena and made some efforts… but have not really jumped into it with both feet.

Much of what is taking place is directed at the city core. What about suburbia?

We have worked really hard on that; we have focused on this issue. In urban terms there are different ways to design the suburban experience as well. It is about many of the same things you want to do in the summer. It’s about making sure that there are not just good places to walk but destination options and you are not just walking around in circles. It’s about understanding that public parks and spaces in the suburban context need to be just as active in winter as they are in summer. I think a lot of the same lessons apply to the suburban situation.  How can you more efficiently move snow and how do you design for that?  It may be more important to ask these questions in the suburban context than in the urban context because we have a better opportunity to get it right there. I understand why we went to uni-sidewalks but in a winter they’re dead. I know why in a planning sense people like the idea of cu-de-sacs but in a winter city they are unbelievably expensive to deal with. There is going to be push back but I think the city is going to say in the city’s interest: “Enough, we cannot afford to continue to build a city using a standard appropriate for another kind of climate.”

What about Edmonton’s architecture and the city’s civic engagement with architecture?

A lot of buildings here were thrown up in the 60s, 70s and 80s and then it all stopped. There developed a feeling that we had not spent any attention to design. As a result, we have had an exciting shift, certainly in terms of civic architecture. There is now an expectation that if the city is going …build something, there should be – remarkable is not the right word – a significant investment in its architecture. We are not going to build just utilitarian. You see that in our recreation centres, libraries and arenas; we have pretty significant competitions not just for our big buildings. We had a national competition for some of our small park buildings that are now being built. Having the city architect actually challenge designs for buildings is beginning to pay off. And not only is it paying off in our buildings. It is getting others to up their game as well.

Councillor Ben Henderson

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