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Winter city design: 3 ways to save our small businesses this COVID-19 winter

September 30, 2020

By Simon O'Byrne

Our public spaces need to work for us 365 days a year—now more than ever

This has been a tough year. On January 1, 2020, not many of us predicted the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic or the profound effect both the virus itself and the public health response would have on our lives. Social distancing made it a strange summer, but at least we had parks and patios. The winter of 2020 promises to be a long one, especially for those small businesses forced to operate with reduced customer capacity, many of which are hanging on by a thread.

I don’t think this can be understated: We need to save our small businesses. The mom and pop shops and independent restaurants that help define our communities are in trouble, and many won’t make it to the spring of 2021. As planners and designers, we have a role to play here. There are choices we can make and recommend to give our businesses a fighting chance to outlast this pandemic, and it starts with embracing the idea of the winter city.

Businesses rely on people being out to attract and retain customers. The unfortunate truth is that most of our public spaces are designed for three seasons—we consider winter a wash and expect everyone to hibernate. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can make our streets, parks, and plazas great places to be for all four seasons and create space for our businesses to thrive through the winter months.

Stantec has done extensive work on winter city planning and design. I have also been directly involved in the City of Edmonton's WinterCity Strategy as co-chair of both the Advisory Council and the Winter Design Working Group, which developed Edmonton's Winter Design Guidelines. There’s a lot to consider when designing for winter, but the philosophy is basic: Create places where people want to be, give them a way to get there, and create ‘sticky’ events—events that draw attendees in and give them reasons to stick around—to help people discover new places.

Making public transportation more comfortable (and more fun) can help get people out of the house in colder months. 

Create places where people want to be

We are inherently social creatures. We crave togetherness, community, and a good time on the town. But our basic need to be comfortable and warm will often trump that desire if we’re given the choice.

When creating a design to get people out in winter, comfort is paramount. If people are uncomfortable, they won’t stay very long and they likely won’t come back. In the winter months, that primarily means two things: Put people in the sun and block out the wind. People with proper clothing can be quite comfortable for hours if they’re in a space that maximizes the warmth of the sun and minimizes the chill of the wind—even if the temperature reads below freezing. Setting up ‘sun traps’ on south sides of buildings is a great place to start. Who doesn’t like a warm sun beam, regardless of what season it is?

Lighting also has an important role to play. Safety is critical, of course, but the right lighting can invite people into a space and keep them there. One example is the Museum of History and Industry in Lynnwood, Washington, where lighting design makes the building form stand out against the city while inviting visitors on to the grounds to stay awhile.

Some European cities like Copenhagen lean into the winter theme, providing fake fur blankets and pillows to keep the patio season going. Simple additions to outdoor spaces, like wrapping a patio in translucent plastic sheeting can help keep in the warmth. Tactics like these will have to be reassessed for safety in the era of COVID-19 but can likely be adjusted or used as inspiration for new ideas.

From a planning perspective, this means giving space and adjusting zoning for small businesses. We’ve seen plenty of programs pop up in our cities to allow businesses to take over street space to comply with physical distancing rules. We need to translate that to winter and give the guidance—based on learned experience—to set businesses up for success.

We can make our streets, parks, and plazas great places to be for all four seasons and create space for our businesses to thrive through the winter months.

Make it easy for people to get there

Transportation has been severely disrupted by COVID-19. Traffic patterns are not what they normally are, and transit ridership has cratered as much as 90% in some cities. Active modes of transportation, however, are spiking.

Walking and cycling might not be obvious mode choices for people in the depths of winter, but good design can make them surprisingly attractive. If not for the full journey, then good design can encourage walking after driving to a location to park.

The plans we made in July aren’t tuned for January. Paint on pavement, for example, doesn’t work for winter cycling. Planters, however, can define space for cycling while beautifying the streetscape. Hearty winter grasses and other plantings can liven up a street, while the physical division of the planter keeps people safe. This is cheap, effective, tactical urbanism at its best, and has been very successful in cities like New York year-round. It should be noted that once those bike lanes are established, plowing them and keeping them clear of snow and ice need to be priorities to make them reliable paths.

Wind modeling studies can look at interventions to make the pedestrian experience more enjoyable. Blocking prevailing winds and known up and down drafts is an important piece of the puzzle, as is creating ‘pockets of refuge’ for gusts on blustery days.

Saskatoon, Saskatchewan has converted alleyways into walkway corridors, allowing commerce in designated zones while making sure city services like garbage pickup don’t compete with pedestrian traffic. Lighting design plays an important role in inviting people into a space—and you can do some very creative things like nightscaping. There’s no reason for alleyways to be lost urban space. Our Urban Places group is always looking at ways to redefine lost spaces like laneways.

Victoria, British Columbia and Melbourne, Australia are two cities famous for converting their alleyways into usable commercial and public space. In fact, they’re a tourist attraction. These narrow, sheltered passageways have a lot of potential for those aspiring to be better winter cities.

Nightscaping – intentional lighting to improve the appeal of a place – is a critical tactic to create an inviting space in the darker months. 

Create sticky events to start shifting culture

The urgency is on to create an environment where businesses can operate (and hopefully thrive) within our cities. That said, we need to be realistic. We’re not going to completely change our cities and our winter culture overnight.

We can start on the right path through something called ‘radical incrementalism’—taking small, incremental steps that add up to a radical shift over time. In applying radical incrementalism to create better winter cities, ‘sticky’ events have an important role to play. First, we need to give people a reason to get out of the house and experience their city with a major focus on making them feel safe and comfortable. Then we can make sure there are reasons for them to stick around. For example, local businesses or artists can be featured in a unique or creative way. This can help people rediscover their city and fall in love with something new.

Ideally, people who go to the event will come away saying “I had more fun than I thought I would, and I discovered a new street/shop/restaurant/activity today. I think I’ll be back.” That means economic activity at the event itself translates into repeat customers in the future.

Of course, there are some interesting cultural aspects to this as well. Winter living has been driven by a fascination with winter fashion in some places. If people have a reason to get out (i.e. showing off their sweet duds) and they feel good doing so, they will continue that behavior and encourage others to do so as well. We don’t want to be overly prescriptive either. Safety guidelines obviously need to be followed, but the most successful and stickiest cultural events are driven by local creativity. Shifting perceptions takes time. But by putting the right pieces in place, we’ll be on our way.

The economic benefits of doing so are enormous. Québec’s Carnival is the third largest in the world after Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans, and it takes place in February. Each year it generates an economic impact of around $38 million and supports some 600 jobs. We’re talking about a February festival where people stay outside all day long in a city that only warms to an average high of -4° C (25° F). They plan for it, design for it, and it works.

We have always had the power to design our cities to be better places for people in winter. It’s a matter of getting the right partners on board, engaging local business and creativity, and harnessing the political will to do so.

Too many designs are focused on what things look like in the middle of July, but our public space needs to be valuable to us 365 days a year. We need to start now if we are going to save the businesses that define our communities this winter.

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