Winter City Q&A pt. 4: Simon O’Byrne, vice president, Discipline Leader, Community Development (Planning), Stantec Edmonton

While also part of Stantec’s Saskatoon centre plan team, I have also been the chair of the Edmonton Winter City Initiative and chaired the urban design portion of it and co-chaired overall Winter Strategy. I have been doing that for five years with the city councillor [Ben Henderson].  This plan has won around a dozen awards and other cities are starting to look at it as a model to follow.

When you start thinking about a winter city, it is self-evident that places like Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Ottawa and even Montréal and Toronto too are winter cities. For me, a winter city is where for a substantial portion of the year, winter is one of the strongest seasons with significant duration.  It is also about how we think of ourselves.

For a long time 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 winter. Part of having a great urban life culture is focusing on all seasons, how do we design cities for all seasons including how do we make great cities in winter.  If you can make an excellent winter place that can be vibrant, rich, interesting and delightful in January, you can surely easily achieve that same objective in July. So rather than designing everything for July, design it for January and then you will be phenomenally successful in the warmer months when Canadians hardly need a poke or prod to go outside.

In winter time you need to give people more cause and reason to go outside; so, you have to have excellent designs that are very thoughtful for winter. You have to think about the city in terms of programming and activity; you almost have to do a reverse of what we are doing, put more money into winter festivals than into summer festivals because that is when people are really begging for things to do and more activities. But we don’t really give it to them.

Is urban planning as a profession in Canada addressing winter cities?

 It is not. It is surprisingly still in its infancy.  We are really not embracing it properly and universally yet it is an idea that has been around for a while so a lot of places have looked at the winter city and done various initiatives. Still, a lot of cities have failed on the implementation side which in my view is the most important part of it.  It’s great to do really good plans but 10 per cent of good planning is the document and 90 per cent is the implementation.

The example I always give people is Copenhagen. Copenhagen in the 1970s was not much of a sustainable city or winter friendly place.  What happened was a very ambitious plan, which was very much grassroots, to really rebuild and refocus Copenhagen to make it a much more amenable place, a great place for cycling, a great place for winter time, a place where urban design supported a strong café culture.  It took them a long time to do that, they realized it might take a generation or more to achieve their ambitious planning goals.  What they said is that no matter what happens, recession or boom, we are going to take every single year to move the yardsticks to make the city more sustainable and more winter city friendly. That meant in terms of the bike system that in a recession year you might put down only a few hundred metres of bike lanes but when there was more money, you would build kilometers of bike lanes.  The cumulative effects over generations is you get hundreds and hundreds of kilometres of high quality bike lanes so you have now reached a point where Copenhagen rivals Amsterdam for bike ridership.

Its level of sustainability in terms of renewables [like] renewable energy is just about second to none. It was a lot more like an American city in the ‘70s in terms of auto use and its café were not used in winter time. Now it does very well in winter time and I am told the rack rates for hotels are better now in the winter time than the summer time because they offer themselves as providing an authentic winter experience to Europeans because they do winter so thoughtfully and do such good winter festivals and are designed to really embrace it. When you go to a patio they immediately give you a blanket on your legs and there are heated awnings everywhere.  If it is a blustery day with lots of rain and sleet, they put these rolling plastic shields around the patios.

Part of it is just dressing people appropriately as if they are going to be outside for a period of time. One of the big substantial differences is people dress appropriately [in Europe]. In North America we dress based on getting from the door to where we work and how close we can get our car to both. What then is the least amount of clothing I can wear to get from A to B without freezing to death?  When you look at any historical cities like Hamilton, Ottawa, Toronto, Montréal in the 1950s, whether it is Portage Ave. in Winnipeg or its going down Yonge Street [in Toronto] or Jasper Avenue in Edmonton you see people dressed appropriately for being outside for hours on end.

We have built these bunker cities where shopping malls and Pedways protect you from the elements but [by doing so] you’ve robbed the city of activity. Now we have a renewed, back to the city movement in terms of new downtown development. You have huge amounts of office space added to our cores across Canada.  A huge amount of multi-family units going up, hotels, museums, performing arts centres.  All the major centres in Canada are seeing a huge amount of activity.  What we are doing now is making the city a lot more delightful and comfortable in winter time.

Everything should be tested around the idea of what will put people in the sun more and what will design out the wind. If it is a blue sky and it’s -15˚ and there is no wind and you have the sun on your face it can be surprisingly comfortable to be out for an extended period of time. It can be only -5˚ if you are in the shade and the wind is on you and it can be just miserable.  That is why it is so critical to create these little sun traps, these little spots on the south sides of buildings so people can be sheltered from the northerly winds and people can sit outside and enjoy a coffee and sit on a patio and people watch.  Playing around with fire is another thing. When I go to the Distillery District in Toronto in the winter time there are narrow streets so there is no wind penetrating in there.  I go into a restaurant for a two hour dinner and outside there is a little fireplace and sitting area and people are sitting around the fire having a drink. Two hours later, the same people are sitting there even if it is -12˚ or -15˚.

How important are the differences between winter cities when planning?

It is critical to look at the severity of winter and how you can manage it; but, you have to look more at the mean temperature because when you start to look at what are the extreme weather days, the ones that are torturous to be outside – blowing wind where it is -25˚, strong winds so that the wind chill puts it into -30˚ something – those are really outlier days. [They are] just like those days in summer where it is raining cats and dogs and it’s windy and so forth.  If you start to look at the median day in Canada with the exception of the west coast then most of them can be sunny and -5˚ to -10˚ with plus or minus depending on the winter.  That is more the mean.  Too often we talk about winter as -30˚ and awful but in Edmonton we have many years where it doesn’t get below -30˚. But does it get into the minus 20s sometimes? Absolutely, but that happens only a handful of times mostly while most of the times it is in the single digits or at worst in the teens. Days in the -20s and -30s are actually the outliers rather than the average.

Does there have to be a cultural change in the media?

This is actually something we did in Edmonton. We meet with the newscasters and we asked them to stop the negativity because the sensationalist stuff that they do creates these negative perceptions of Edmonton.  “Oh my God it’s another crappy miserable day” when in fact it’s not nearly as bad as they make it out to be.  It’s like crime. Crime is [much less] than it appears but the perception of crime is that it much worse than it’s ever been.  The crime stats don’t show that but it is all about how the media tells the story.  I would love to go back in a time machine and see how the media reported on the weather and I doubt it is as it is today. And you look at how prominent the weather is now in the broadcasts; it seems it’s about a third of the six o’clock news is devoted to weather.

Saskatoon Center Plan does not focus as much on winter as does Edmonton’s strategy.

There are aspects of it. Edmonton had a bigger framework on which to draw upon.  We wanted to make [Saskatoon] a plan for all seasons.  You go through a lot of drawings including architectural renderings and most look like we are living in Florida given how green everything is when in fact the number of months we have leaves on the trees is five tops.  That is why you will see some winter imagery in the [Saskatoon Plan].

One of the big things was creating passageways through the downtown because in particular [key] areas is windy [because] the streets are so wide and expansive. A lot of western cities were designed literally so that a horse and wagon could do a complete U-turn. That is what determined the right-of-way width.   Now we have the legacy of these super wide roads and they served well when we had street cars; but, now we have these thoroughfares through our cores that don’t work for pedestrians or embrace the “complete street movement.”

One of the things we put into the Saskatoon plan was encouraging the redesign of alleys into mews and these mews could be areas where you have commercial development such as cafes, galleries, pop-up galleries and other things like that which you could illuminate to create alleys of light with the opportunity to put nightscaping throughout. At the same time you create some short cuts to get from A to B with weather protection.  So by having narrower passages you are going to have less wind penetrating these areas which is really crucial.

A lot about the plan is fixing the urban texture that is part of the overall better practice of how we do downtown winter planning in terms of having a much better balance between pedestrians, cyclists and automobiles.

Do you agree that if you get the core issues of basic good urban planning right you already get some of the core issues to creating the livable winter city?

Yes, you are right. There is so much wrong that has been done by being auto-centric. One of the casualties has been the things that make street life interesting and much more accommodating to pedestrians in winter.

Was there discussion about winter cycling?

We did discuss that, about the need to have segregated bike lanes because simply having painted lines on the street doesn’t help. When you have gravel put down for grip and you also have roads that are centre-crated in winter, we felt you really needed to have segregated bike lanes. The healthy thing that Winnipeg does that Saskatoon was encouraged to do was make sure you clear the bike lanes quickly.  Winnipeg prioritizes cleaning the bike lanes. As fast as they clear the collector roads for buses, they clean the bike lane.

What are the key elements on which to focus when creating the livable winter city?

If you can focus on only a few things it is designing out the wind. This means layering the buildings, putting in canvas awnings/canopies and being consciences of where is the prevailing winds. The worst winds come from the northwest so you need to put people on the other side of that wind and use things such as trees that hold their needles through the wintertime to buffer and dilute the wind.  Wind outside makes the cold seem so much worse than it is.

Having a patio culture that doesn’t have to be one or two seasons but can be four seasons as in Europe is vital. This means allowing businesses to have patios [through the winter] because there is a constituency that if you provide blankets for them and let them sit in the sun with no wind on their face and they are dressed appropriately they will enjoy being outside.  Just like when you go to a ski resort. There will be more people wanting to sit outside than inside for a meal or a beer because they are dressed to be outside. Creating this year round patio culture is really critical.

What about snow as a winter city issue?

Some of the ideas deal with creating very big pedestrian areas. The idea is not to remove all the snow but to stock pile it in plazas and then to have some fun with it.  Mash it up every once in a while and allow children to go and use the stock piles of snow, and create tunnels and snow mazes.  You give stuff to actually draw with on the snow like water soluble paint and provide tag snow walls on which to paint. These are the things that make for really great and fun public spaces. As a parent, what I can tell you is that the more fun the public realm is and the more distracted the kids are, the more parents are happy.

How important is the public transit network in the winter city?

It is very important. A great winter environment is when you have made it possible for people to be a pedestrian in terms of how they are getting around the city and how they are cycling more. That means having excellent public transit, having walkable streets with smart and intelligent streets and an intuitive grid so you can get from A to B knowledgably and comfortably without being confused and lost easily. It’s also about having blocks with mid-block crossings so you can do shortcuts that are more comfortable. It’s about having ball bullocks on corners so you have narrower distances to cross from one side walk to the other.

It’s about little things. Winter cities are about designing catch basins differently so they are not located at the absolute lowest point in the intersection and that the grates are big enough to accommodate leaf or ice build-ups.  With climate change we experience more freeze/thaw cycles. What is happening now is many of our urban areas are clogged up with slush, that really nasty brown water that you get in spring thaws when the water cannot drain properly.  This is a real problem with people who have mobility challenges.  If you are blind or you are in a wheel chair or you are elderly with a walker, then it really restricts your mobility in the city. We are starting to look at the fact that we now have more people over 65 than under 15 [years of age].  As a consequence, we urban planners must start planning for a society with decreased mobility.  This means, how do we actually make it comfortable for people to be outside walking around if there is an ocean of ice and brown slush around every intersection?  Older people cannot get around. All these little thing have a huge impact on whether or not we select to walk or take transit rather than take our car.

What is the importance of lighting in the winter city?

We felt strongly that with so much of Canada in a palate of darkness for six months there is this wonderful opportunity to create delightfully rich and pleasing environments where you can be whimsical even with nightscaping. [We should] use architectural and landscape lighting to illuminate pathways and landscape features – whether it is big boulders or other hardscape elements as well as buildings.

We have a lot of mediocre architecture at best in Canada; not every building is a showpiece. But if we were to illuminate these buildings with a little bit of light that is playful using LED lighting, which is also very inexpensive to operate in terms of energy consumption, we can really do delightful and whimsical things with our buildings, bridges and other monumental pieces of infrastructure.  These can change with different activities; they can be rainbow coloured during pride festival or red and white on Canada day.  The Blue Jays win and it goes all blue.

We have started to go down this road in Edmonton [with the High Level Bridge project]. It is a kilometre across with big heavy steel girders.  We crowd sourced it; we said we want the people of Edmonton to pay for this not city hall and so a group of citizens got together and started it.  People could donate by buying a light bulb and the people did, several million [bulbs].

What is the role of urban parks in the winter city?

We have to keep them going. Too often the attitude is “nobody uses our parks in wintertime, so we are not going to put any city budget into the parks in the wintertime.  We are not going to pick up the garbage, we are not going to clear the trails, and we are really going to underinvest in our city parks.”  And they did.  And the consequences are that when washrooms are closed and garbage is not picked up and snow is not plowed on trails only the winter bikers and hardy cross country skiers take advantage of parks.  One of the things we thought about is that if we actually invest in the parks and don’t treat them as places that are shut down [much of the year] but instead as places that are going to be used year round, you will get that use and it will be a much better place in winter.

Implementation: what is happening in Saskatoon now?

They are going forward with some of the civic precinct. They don’t have the money to implement all of the city centre ideas. One of the ideas that they are doing is when they need to fix a street they are making the fixes by making them more complete streets.  They cannot implement all at once so what they are going to do is incrementally start to work on various streets.  They are doing the city plaza and the area around city hall.  They are going to make it much more pedestrian friendly, they are going to beautify area with streetscaping and landscaping.

What about the suburbs?

Truth be told, a lot of the ideas that we have proposed are urban centric. But that does not mean we can’t do things a lot differently and smarter in terms of suburbia.  Part of it is making suburbia a lot more walkable and urbanized.  Part of it is thinking in terms of really good design so you can have much shorter walking distances.  Some of these policies are in place now. For example, everyone is no more than 400 metres away from transit. Even if we have cul-de-sacs, we are putting in 6 metre rights of ways so there is connectivity, so you can take short cuts.  If you look at the more contemporary subdivisions going in, most planners are moving away from the “spaghetti” layout and going to the modified grid.  Not a pure Jeffersonian grid like we had 100 years ago, but a modified grid that responds to the natural geometry of the parcel that is being developed.

Simon O'Byrne

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