Canadian Lessons for Winter Cities

March 17, 2015

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As the mercury begins to rise above zero in many Canadian cities in March, it’s tempting to pretend that we’ll never again have to bundle up and suffer through frozen-numb faces and temperatures colder than Mars. Though probably required to alleviate our collective cabin fever, in reality about one quarter of our lives in northern cities is spent dealing with winter and its many discontents. This annual recurrence of snow and slush, blizzards and black ice, has largely and traditionally been ignored by urban planners and designers whose work tends to focus on making our cities and spaces livable and functional for only three quarters of the year. Lately, however, a movement has been gaining momentum that is challenging this seasonal myopia and is seeking innovative solutions to combat this oversight.

ice hotel

Winter provides a unique and fleeting opportunity to experience our environments in a radically different way than in which we are familiar. Winter City design recognizes this chance and urges us to don our mittens and rethink the way we live when the days are short and nights are long.  From art installations to public transportation, here’s what we learned this year from Canadian cities and communities about Winter City design:

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/1/ Let’s Go to the Beach, or, Give People a Reason

Waterfronts, whether of the sandy or concrete variety, are underutilized spaces in the winter. Between the knifing winds coming off the water and the lack of pedestrian amenities rationalized away by the appeal of a spread blanket in the sun, there’s little reason to head to the beach once the snow starts falling. But a recent competition-cum-art installation held in Toronto shows us that all people really need to embrace the winter waterfront is a reason to go there. Winter Stations asked competitors to breathe life into the tundra-like beaches of East Toronto by designing “installations anchored to the lifeguard stands which can add among other things, colour, movement and humour to the landscape”. By all accounts, the installations were wildly popular, proving that curiosity, in addition to killing the cat, can also beat the cold.

/2/ Don’t Salt the Sidewalk (Necessarily)

People in Ottawa, some 17-20,000 per day, have been skating to work on the Rideau Canal for years. Started in 1970, the 7.8 kilometre long Skateway is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the home of Winterlude, an annual festival celebrating Canada’s northern climate. Not every city has a canal, but that didn’t stop the Freezeway concept (above) from bursting from obscurity to popularity this winter. The brainchild of Matt Gibs, the Freezeway would see an 11 kilometre stretch of Edmonton, Alberta, purposely flooded and frozen to allow people to skate in an 1.25 hour loop around the city centre. If you’re scoffing at the idea, you might want to reconsider; Dezeen reports that Edmonton City Council is “undertaking exploratory conversations with stakeholders” about the concept and the Edmonton Ski Club will be piloting a prototype as soon as next year. Even if the idea isn’t ultimately feasible, its popularity speaks to an evolution in pedestrian design thinking for winter mobility solutions.


/3/ Light and Heat Make All the Difference

Over the past couple of years, Canadian cities have begun to leverage the deep freeze and use it to attract tourist dollars from the local to international level. Whereas some cities wholly celebrate the season unabashedly, like in Quebec City with the long-running annual Carnaval, others are finding ways to turn winter’s weaknesses into strengths. In Montreal, the long dark nights and whited-out landscapes of the season provide the perfect canvas for a celebration of light. The aptly named Luminothérapie (pictured above) turns the Quarter des spectacles, a pedestrian-oriented cultural space, into a kaleidoscopic riot of colour with a series of interactive installations that keeps peoples’ bodies moving in, and minds distracted from, the cold. Demonstrating a slightly different approach, Winnipeg’s fifth annual Warming Huts competition asks designers of all stripes to compete to have their submissions showcased on the Red River Mutual Trail, engaging skaters and keeping them warm as they glide back and forth on the five kilometre route. As an indication as just how creative you can get with winter-focused amenities, one of this year’s winning submissions was a pop-up restaurant on the ice called RAW:almond, a unique dining experience that was sold out most nights.


/4/ People Will Find a Way (So Get Out of It)

The last lesson to take from this year’s winter design stories is that no matter how cold it is outside, people will find a way to celebrate the winter. This year we saw intensely silly debates over sledding in Hamilton, skating on a beloved local pond in Toronto,  and building homemade ice rinks. Granted, though the safety concerns are well-meaning (except for the ice rink, seriously?), they are ultimately overblown. As the public backlash shows, the fights over these initiatives are not only politically unpopular, but represent a huge missed opportunity for cities of all sizes to get the most out of the winter. Rather than spend time and energy enforcing or regulating the season’s activities, cities should encourage people to get outside, toques, scarves, mitts and all.

Images and video (in order from top to bottom) courtesy of: Aoife (Flickr cc)Martin Cathrae (Flickr cc), Michel Trocme, KSU CUDC, art_inthecity (Flickr cc), and Roger Cullman.

This article originally appeared on OpenCity Projects,  a creative lab that is all about great urban experiences. They aim to elevate the role of public space in building strong communities through their research, community engagement and writing.