Winter City Q&A pt. 2: Sue Holdsworth, Urban Planner & Winter City Coordinator, City Of Edmonton

What is the context for Edmonton’s Winter City strategy?

When the mayor asked all the councillors what they were particularly interested in terms of the initiatives they would like to focus on, Councillor [Ben] Henderson said he was really interested in winter. He said we put a lot of emphasis on summer and we have ignored winter and pretended [winters] didn’t happen.  We need to change that and invest in our winter; that was one of the main things that he wanted to work on. He struggled at the beginning to find people in the city who understood what he meant by that, was it a planning thing, was it a community service thing, was it a transportation thing, it could have fit in anywhere as it was very broad in the way he meant it.

So, it landed here in Community Services in a group called Community Initiatives. We understood this broad vision that incorporated all the different parts of what the city does and how it is community based and not just looking at events and not just looking at infrastructure and not just looking at budgets, but looking at it all together while changing our whole culture really.

We formed a winter think tank with a lot of high profile community leaders and they were the architects of the winter city movement. They were tasked with formulating the recommendations that would become the backbone of the strategy.  We knew they could not just do that in isolation [that] they had to do it in consultation with the people and everything we heard was taken into consideration.  A year later they came up with the decision document and it was adopted by Council.

The think tank’s work was done but one of the recommendations of its report was to establish an advisory council to oversee the implementation. They would be the champions going forward; so, we kept some of the same people from the think tank but we also changed things up and invited new people including high level administrators from every single city department. It had to be a combination of community and city efforts. We wanted a champion from every department.

Their first task was to develop an implementation plan which took about a year to do. Again, there was more consultation. We knew that the ten goals of the task force’s report were sacrosanct; but there were over 50 actions identified in the report that were mostly ideas and were not fully fleshed out. It was the role of the advisory council to flesh these all out and it came up with the 64 actions that are in the implementation plan. The advisory council is still in place.  Now we are going forward with two years of implementation.  We are working with tourism and the community leagues and the hospitality establishments, the Chamber [of Commerce]. We have partnered with them in some shape or form on things like the Winter City Design Guidelines.

We thought it would take a long time to start shifting our culture, planting the seeds today, but [taking] a generation to realize. But we have noticed in a few short years a big difference in our city already. It feels as if this whole thing has been like a runaway train; and I have been trying really hard not to get run over because there is so much momentum, so much buy-in in the community.

Even when we started the consultations for the Vision Document, the question we asked was “what would make you fall in love with winter in Edmonton?” And just having that conversation with the season coming anyways started the shift even back then. That was because we had such a multi-pronged consultation.

Has the approach of the urban planning profession been a problem for winter cities?

Yes, we have always sort of designed for summer conditions, it is kind of the default. Right now in Edmonton they are investing billions and billions of dollars [in construction] and if you want to realize a full return on investment you have to take winter into account as that is half of the year.  So we are really encouraging people to think about designing with winter in mind.

We struggled with that in the winter design guidelines; there is a lot in there that we wanted to incorporate that was just good urban planning no matter the season.

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

In Finland, I think, they have different parts of winter, dark winter, cold winter, etc. That was another thing that surfaced here was the idea to break up winter four parts.  There is the Christmas part that everyone just about does well already. Our main focus is January, February and March …dark winter.

The first guiding principle and probably the most important is “authentic,” basing design on our attributes, our climate. For example, Ottawa and Edmonton are quite different climates.  What we do here has to work for Edmontonians first and not for tourism, although there are aspects of tourism in the strategy.  We were really strict in ensuring everything passed that authenticity standard when adopting practices from elsewhere.

In Oulu, they do not plow to the bare pavement and they use these special plows that leave little tracks to give more traction [for cyclists and skiers]. We hosted a conference here in January and we had a number of experts come from Oulu and Finland to share their leading practices with us.   We are ahead in many things, but we also have a lot of catch-up to do on things like that cycling.

I think that certain cities are advanced in certain areas. But nobody has a strategy like ours we found.  We work from the Ice Berg model where events are just the tip of the ice berg, we are looking at the patterns and the systems and the breakdowns underlying the model.  I am not aware of anyone looking at it in such a holistic way.

There are places like in Germany where they have the most interesting Christmas Markets, they are doing amazing things. Northern Europe is particularly advanced in terms of technology, using heated sidewalks and the way they clear their snow [with] their whole amazing tracking system for snow clearing. But then you look at places like Russia; there it is almost considered treason to not like winter.  They don’t use all the fancy technology necessarily, it is just a point of pride.

I don’t know if Edmonton is way out front totally, but here people are getting it and are starting to talk about designing for winter. Countries like Iceland are way ahead in how they use colour. There is even a city that has a colour master plan for the whole town to increase the vibrancy of their cityscape.   We certainly have enough beige and greys in our buildings and we certainly do not need more.

How is Blatchford Progressing in terms of Edmonton’s Winter City Strategy?

The first group of architects hired to do the conceptual work did a fantastic job – they called it an all-season design. They placed their main hill, that is a toboggan hill, in such a way as to block the prevailing winds over the rest of the site. The way they oriented their streets as short staggered streets block winds, which will eliminate a lot of the wind chill when you are walking around outside.  They created spaces that could be programmed year round not just in summer and winter.  We hold it up as a shining example.

What must be the relationship between guidelines vs. regulation?

Other places have tried to do guidelines in the past but I don’t think anyone has done them very recently and in the past they have included some great things but also some that are outdated. The implementation of the guidelines has yet to come. In the implementation section it talks about amending the zoning law and looking at other regulations. But it will take time to get to all of those pieces [into place] but it is envisaged and some of this actually lined up to happen relatively soon.

Does the new area development fit within the context of the winter city?

They call it the Ice District. They are building this giant winter garden and they are trying to embrace the winter city movement, embody the principles. It remains to be seen, however, because the big outdoor space – and that is what we are really talking about when we speak of the winter city – will not be ready until 2019.  I have seen renderings and it looks like a very animated space and they have certainly thought about how to program it in winter time. About the buildings around it and whether or not there will be downdrafts shooting down, if the podiums will do what they want them to do and other design features, I don’t know yet.  Not all the buildings have gone through building permit approval yet so they may change.

Personally I would have liked to have [height restrictions] in the guidelines but politically that is not going to fly here. But they have incorporated things in the design guidelines for downdrafts that will hopefully eliminate them.  And hopefully they will be adopted by other new developments in the future.

What about urban planning as a profession and the healthy city aspect of the winter city?

You cannot be a healthy city if you are not an active city in winter too. You are healthy if you go outside and are active and connect with people, not just in a physical sense but in terms of reducing social isolation for which people are at risk in the winter.  The younger generations are demanding higher quality of life year round. One of the things that we remind people all the time when we are out consulting and hear “that won’t work here” or “that’s not our culture” is that  culture shifts over time and we are not as limited by our climate as we tend to believe.  In terms of cycling, for example, a lot of people believe that it is too cold to cycle in the winter.  But research shows – and if you go to places like Oulu and lots of other places around the world such as Minneapolis – cold is not the main thing stopping people from cycling.  The main thing is the perception of safety and real safety issues. That is what stops people, that is what stops me from cycling.  We don’t have separated bike lanes here to get me to work and I don’t feel safe going on the street in the winter time.  If we developed the proper infrastructure to make cycling safe there will be a stronger winter cycling culture. People like me will be more inclined to ride in the winter.

As we engage more people to determine what they really want in urban design it seems we find that what we give them is not what they want. Have you found this to be true?

I think that is true. Our whole emphasis is oriented toward this – consultation from the ground up.  We are constantly going back in and checking up, is this what you want; is this going to work for you?  We are hosting workshops all the time to make sure we are using the right approach.  We are doing a lighting master plan and other things where we are having groups of shareholders leading the discussions and telling us how to make them work better.

Consultation as the approach is expanding and continuing to expand in Edmonton and will only keep on growing.  We have a ten year implementation plan and hopefully it will eventually get a life of its own and will not require a push to keep it going. Everyone will just use the winter lens and it will just become part of the way everybody does stuff. And that is one of the reasons there is not an emphasis on throwing a lot of money at things because it is not really about new money as it is about spending existing money differently. Although, there is an element of new money too for certain things. For example, we wanted to put together a creative lighting program that will cost money. And it will be a cost sharing program with building owners and whomever wants to do some creative lighting.

Is there a changing attitude within the development community?  

I think there is an interest. I am told that some of the developers have asked to see drafts of the guidelines and are already trying to incorporate some of those elements into their developments even though they were not yet approved by council and implemented. People are checking already and thinking about it because anytime a project goes to council the politicians are always asking “show us how you have incorporated a winter lens here.” Edmonton’s design committee is asking the same questions.  So even though they are not officially approved yet, developers are self-motivated; but, they also know that the politicians are starting to ask the questions because there is that awareness.

Following out of the design guidelines is the development of the creative lighting plan which we now have and hopefully will go forward to council with the design guidelines. The two main things about the lighting Master Plan is that it is not about more lighting it is about strategic creative lighting and using new technologies like LEDs, solar and programmable stuff which is advancing by leaps and bounds all the time.

There is more interest in lighting here as we recently had the Light the Bridge Project on the major high level river crossings and it was all crowd funded with no city moneys, no taxpayers’ dollars. It is all LED programmable lighting and ATB Financial also lit up its building with programmable LED lighting.  The lighting plan will give direction as well as hopefully some inspiration [along with] practical advice.  Falling out of that, we are doing a pilot project to light five to seven heritage buildings and we hope to get that off the ground as soon as we can. This will give us direction on how to set up a longer term program.  So these are all things that fall out of the Winter Design Guidelines. On a small scale in terms of creative lighting, we are encouraging people to landscape taking winter into consideration and to incorporate creative lighting along a small scale in the community.  It is growing slowly but it is growing.

You might also like