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Skating on a rolling ribbon of ice

Ice ribbons bring multi-season parks to winter communities

It all started almost 20 years ago. I was in Sweden and saw this curious little refrigerated skating trail, running up a steep hill to a small park building from a large Bandy sports rink. The Bandy players were using the trail to access the restrooms on the top of the hill - it wasn’t intended to be a public skating trail; you had to be a mountain goat to navigate the steep trail grade. My initial thought was, “we’ve got to do something like this in a park, only tame it down a bit.”

So we started talking about it, drawing up ideas, and presenting at conferences. It took about 10 years of marketing effort before we found a client who was in a position to do a refrigerated skating trail, a visionary mayor from Elkhart, Indiana, who fell in love with the idea. The community was looking for a unique attraction to bring more people to the developing downtown business district. After much discussion we created a detailed perspective showing a multi-season park. The primary function was to accommodate  Elkhart’s 4-1/2 month-long winter—an ice skating trail made perfect sense. During the summer and shoulder seasons, park visitors would enjoy an interactive water feature, concessions, and programmable events such as outdoor movies, weddings, music, and craft shows. The skating trail concept was a huge success, drawing local residents as well as visitors from neighboring communities to downtown Elkhart. We were on to something here!

Two months ago, we opened our largest project yet: the longest refrigerated ice skating trail in the United States at Maggie Daley Park in downtown Chicago. The project is a quarter-mile-long refrigerated ice ribbon, ranging from 20 to 40 feet wide, and providing 27,500 square feet of ice surface – nearly twice the size of a traditional ice rink. The ribbon winds through the park landscape, providing an added dimension to the skating experience by enabling skaters to skate up and down slopes as they follow the serpentine alignment through the park.  

The beauty of the skating ribbon is that it puts ice where skaters skate, and eliminates ice that often sits idle in the center of traditional recreation rinks. The unusual, relaxed shape of the ribbon creates a different environment that piques the curiosity of people who may have been thinking of trying to skate before but simply haven’t made the move. Recreation skating, particularly on traditional rectangular rinks, often gets trumped by a pick-up hockey games, which limits the ability for new skaters to gain skating experience. In creating skating ribbons, we are opening up a new market for the skating industry, making it comfortable to go out and have a fun, relaxed, unique recreational experience on the ice.

Moreover, downtown communities are seeing a secondary income benefit from winter venues like ice ribbons, drawing more people into the cities and downtown areas at a time when most outdoor recreation venues are buried under the snow.  So far the ice ribbon has delivered with large crowds whenever winter weather is not outrageously cold.

The Maggie Daley Park ice ribbon provides a winter magnet that brings people to the park, but it also accommodates summer programming quite well. The ribbon form of ice rink softens the summer impact on a park.  The traditional hockey rink shape—a large mass of concrete —typically struggles to fit in with the summer landscape. In contrast, skating ribbons become undulating landscaped walking or running trails that fit well into the natural environment and provide areas for other summer recreation such as the large climbing structures provided at Maggie Daley Park, interactive water features, or other creative summer program space.

As I skated with the crowds during the grand opening of the park, I sensed their enthusiasm for the ice ribbon. Where else can you skate around a rolling sidewalk of ice? These hills are wild! Back in the office, watching the aerial construction cameras available to monitor the park construction, I observed maximum capacities of 500 to 700 skaters on the ice ribbon every day from opening until closing during the holiday season. The skate rental line wrapped for hundreds of feet around the back side of the trail throughout most of the day. The reception of this facility has been overwhelming, and that has been incredibly rewarding for me!

My formal degree is in civil engineering. Engineers aren’t generally considered to be very creative (whether that’s fair or not). Prior to finding my engineering soul, I began my schooling in pre-architecture, so I like to think I have a creative side along with an inventive soul. To find a career where these passions could be used to help communities grow and thrive has been a wonderful gift. For me, this type of work combines it all – it’s creative, it’s technical, it’s new and exciting, and most importantly it engages and inspires people of the community. My team’s projects are strewn throughout North America and it is a wonderful feeling knowing these facilities, some quite small and simple, some quite formidable in stature, will contribute to the quality of life for a diverse community of fellow citizens. I love passing through former project sites seeing the play and activity continues. Can’t get much better that that in my book!

Jim Maland is Stantec’s chief recreational facilities engineer. Over his 35+ year career, Jim has participated in more than 150 ice projects and 50 aquatics projects.

Two months ago, we opened our largest project yet: the longest refrigerated ice skating trail in the US at Maggie Daley Park in Chicago.

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