Northern cities need to embrace the snow and cold; designers can treat winter as an asset

March 5, 2015 Nancy MacDonald

Winter design contributes to the livability of communities and is critical to building sustainable, active spaces


This may be a tough sell after snow and ice have brought many North American cities to a standstill this winter, but I’ve long been a proponent of treating winter as an asset instead of a liability when designing communities. This is really a transformational shift in how we view our coldest season and has resulted in a different way of thinking when working with our clients. The results of this shift were really evident at the Winter Cities Shake-Up, which was held here in Edmonton at the end of January. This was an international conference on challenging misconceptions about how we plan, work, play, design, and live in winter cities.

As an urban planner in Edmonton, designing for winter isn’t a choice for me. Winter-like weather can often be a reality six months of the year and can make an unwelcome appearance regardless of the season. Woven throughout the conference was the overall theme of how we need to change the perception of winter through design. As one of the keynote speakers at the conference, CBC’s Terry O’Reilly articulated this so well as he spoke about taking ownership of winter as a brand for our cities. Celebrate it. Promote it. Get excited about it. There’s no doubt that we, as designers, have a role to play here. Most of the time we showcase the work we do by using images of our projects in summer. We wait for the perfect day when the sun is shining, the grass is green and the flowers are in full bloom before taking pictures of our finished work. Our renderings show parks with people at picnic tables and frisbees being tossed around — not snow-covered trees and snowmen. If we’re going to design for winter, then we need to ensure that we think about what the users of the space are doing in the space in winter. We need to make sure it is comfortable and inviting to be outside, and that the users are protected from the elements in all seasons. We also need to use these images in building our portfolio of work.



In addition, if we’re going to get our cold-weather communities excited about winter, then we need to continue evolving our designs. Our team in Edmonton has continually looked for creative opportunities to use winter as an asset – it is one of the ways we serve our clients and the communities they build. Winter design contributes to the livability of communities and is critical to building sustainable, active spaces. The Winter Cities Shake-Up was filled with great ideas for bringing vibrancy to winter design. It was exciting to see how these ideas are gaining traction throughout the industry.

One aspect that really hit home for me was designing public spaces that attract festivals—winter festivals. This requires spaces that are protected from the wind, designed with a sunny south exposure, and are infused with color. Many communities already use color to bring life to places where people gather together, whether it’s a town hall or someone’s home. This is even more important in a winter climate. In fact, the airport that is under construction in Iqaluit, Nunavut will be a bold red for this very reason: Color attracts people and brings them together. Winter cities can do the same to draw people into common places.

Helen Marriage of the event planning firm Artichoke in London, England was another of the keynote speakers at the conference. Artichoke puts on the Lumiere Festival in Durham, England. It is a winter light and public art festival that attracts people from all over Great Britain – a truly spectacular way to bring people into public spaces on winter evenings. Light is crucial in the design of winter cities – both natural and man-made. The psychological effect light has on people makes it one of the most powerful tools for creating a community that embraces winter.

One trend that we are seeing more of (and that I absolutely love) is the four-season patio. Extending the patio season is easy with outdoor heaters and blankets. Sitting in the sunshine—even though it may be in a glass patio—is an incredible mental break during the coldest months of the year. Restaurants are recognizing people’s craving for sunlight during the winter, and designing glassed-in patios gives them that fix, regardless of the season. If surrounded by a colorful, vibrant streetscape then regardless of the glass, patrons are still connected to the community and interacting with the street like they do during traditional patio season that everyone waits for.

Man-made light is invaluable for making winter cities more exciting and attractive. Now, with LED technology, lighting our bridges, buildings and public spaces make them both safer and more inviting while maintaining sustainability. The High Level Bridge in Edmonton and the Langevin Bridge in Calgary are great examples of taking utilitarian structures that move people, bikes, and vehicles and turning them into illuminated colored infrastructure.

These are only a few of the creative ideas brought forward at the Winter Cities Shake-Up, which did a fabulous job of highlighting the passion and enthusiasm the design industry has for our winter communities. It was truly a showcase of ideas, people and projects where winter is seen as an asset. Even our friends and colleagues who have been inundated with snow this year in New England might be able to get excited about these ideas. No? Too soon?

About the Author

Nancy MacDonald

A fascination with cities drew Nancy MacDonald to the world of planning. She loves the way they change, grow, and fit together, combining diverse people and places to make something greater than the sum of its parts.

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