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Embracing the chill: Turning winter into a design asset

February 15, 2017

By Nancy MacDonald

It’s possible for winter cities to make vibrant communities even in the cold. It just takes a plan.

Edmonton is steadily building a national reputation as a winter design leader and we’ve been at the forefront of much this work. But how has this reputation come about? This city is embracing and celebrating our longest season—and this approach is very important to our success.

Edmonton is Canada's fifth-largest city and the largest northern North American city with a metropolitan population over one million. We are known for our prized river valley, so often depicted as the version we love (and perhaps prefer): green, lush, and spectacular set against our stunning summer scenery with those extended, bright evenings and late night sunsets. The reality is—the reality locals know well—that a lot of our year is consumed by winter and the cold, long, dark nights it brings.

Until recently, winter has been widely accepted as a time for virtual hibernation; a time when we seek out opportunities to hide away indoors—at malls and in above-grade pedways—waiting for the welcome return of summer. In essence, what we did, and what we sought to do, was engineer winter out. We turned our back on it. 30 years ago no one would have dreamt of a design philosophy that celebrated winter and integrated specific design principles into a policy. But that is exactly what is happening in Edmonton.

In October 2012, endorsed by City Council, Edmonton adopted a winter strategy entitled For the Love of Winter: Strategy for Transforming Edmonton into a World-Leading Winter City and has just approved the first implementation tool: Winter Design Guidelines. These bold moves have set Edmonton on the path to become a winter city leader on the world stage. You may ask yourself, what’s the impetus for this dramatic shift in our approach to winter and its place in city design? This shift is one of necessity in order for our city to continue to grow and evolve. Growth requires people, and our city has to up its game when it comes to attracting and retaining the highly skilled individuals our economy needs to meet its full potential. By adopting a winter city strategy, and building on this foundation through Winter Design Guidelines, we can improve Edmonton’s livability and further our capacity to grow and advance our economy.

The results we’re looking to achieve will be realized through leveraging the winter assets we already have, and by applying a winter lens to future investments in Edmonton. Winter should be considered at the outset of the design process; it should not be an afterthought.

Embedding winter-specific design principles into official City of Edmonton policy is a visionary idea that could have a transformational effect on our urban form, and cement our position as a winter city leader. With this strong policy direction and supporting guidelines we can improve the ways in which decisions are made—aiming at the highest possible urban quality while creating thermal comfort and enjoyment for residents.

To this end, the City’s Winter Design Guidelines fall into two categories: streetscape, and park and open spaces.

Streetscape focuses on designing our communities for winter comfort, safety, access, and aesthetic appeal. This includes everything from neighborhood layout, and building massing and orientation, right down to architectural design, materials, and color. It deals with the interface between buildings and the public realm: building entries, canopies, lighting, signage, landscaping, and pedways. It also considers boulevards, street crossings, street furniture, wayfinding, and bus stops and LRT stations, along with bicycle infrastructure, bridges, and parking.

The parks and open spaces category focuses on design elements for winter fun activity, beauty, and interest, beginning with site design on a larger scale and drilling down to the more granular level. It looks at landscaping, pathways, and access and recreation. It explores winter infrastructure that supports year-round programming, and recommendations related to shelters, signage, furniture, art, and lighting.

Relevant to both design categories are five overall principles: blocking wind, sunshine, color, light, and infrastructure.

Winter city dwellers know full well the difference between bearable and unbearable cold can be the wind. The day’s weather is often described as “minus 14, feeling like minus 29 with the wind chill.” There are ways to design buildings and infrastructure to specifically block wind and prevent downdrafts. Strategic use of design features such as canopies, stepbacks, and strategic landscaping planning can have a significant improvement on our ability to be comfortable outside. All of this must be factored in when identifying main activity areas and public gathering spaces—if you want to draw people to these urban hubs, you must shelter them from the wind.

If there’s a benefit to the northern cold, it’s the sunshine it often brings with it. Those days when it is literally too cold to snow and the sun shines crisply in the sky. In Edmonton, of the 154 days from November to March, 121 of them are typically sunny, which presents us with an opportunity to maximize exposure through orientation and design. This natural beauty can be even further enhanced with an injection of color invigorates the streetscape.

Creating visual interest with light—through public art that mixes color and light, for example—is one of the simplest and most effective ways to enliven public spaces in a winter context. Lighting has diverse benefits: it provides welcome contrast to the darkness; it offers a beacon of activity by identifying a landmark against the night sky; and it imbues a sense of safety into the public realm.

All these aspects of a vibrant wintertime shared space must be anchored by winter infrastructure that enables and supports that vibrancy. This means making winter activities visible and accessible in prominent public spaces. It means providing comfortable outdoor seating and venues that will entice those dressed in winter wear to sit on an outdoor patio and enjoy a hot chocolate or specialty coffee. By providing a heat lamp, fire, or blankets you can extend the life of an outdoor patio by a couple of months—or even through the entire winter season. Winter city inhabitants are a resilient and determined bunch, eagerly seeking an outdoor environment that encourages them to stay awhile.

A design approach tailored to the needs and realities of our winter city has the potential to transform Edmonton—and many other winter cities—in new and exciting ways.

  • Nancy MacDonald

    Nancy is our regional business lead for infrastructure in the UK and Ireland—she’s focused on supporting our Community Development and Transportation teams as they drive research and development.

    Contact Nancy
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