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How to stave off the wintry chills and embrace the outdoors this COVID-19 winter

December 03, 2020

By Adam Fearing

Winter City design is about accepting the cards we’re dealt and changing our ethos around being cold. It just might get us through the rough winter ahead

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about many unknowns, and as the clock races towards the winter solstice, a new unknown has emerged. What are we going to do this winter when enjoying the outdoors will become a challenge in many cold-weather cities?

This fall, landscape designer Adam Fearing led a virtual charette with our Landscape Architecture Studio to explore practical ideas for Winter City design—an approach that embraces the cold and allows our public spaces to work for us year-round. The goal was to create ideas that can be implemented for little to no cost and without a negative impact on the environment. The ideas vary in scale and intervention, but a common thread runs between them: Making the most of what Mother Nature will throw our way this winter.

We spoke to Adam to learn more about the designs that came out of this charette and discuss practical tips for communities looking to embrace Winter City design.

What are we going to do this winter when enjoying the outdoors will become a challenge in many cold-weather cities?

Why is Winter City design so important in cold weather cities like Boston?

Here in Boston, winter lasts for almost a quarter of the year. There are months when the streets and squares become totally desolate. Business goes on indoors, but the outdoor terraces and sidewalk cafes go away as people run to and from their cars or rideshares to avoid the cold. Boston’s sidewalks have long been untapped real estate.

Winter design has been at the forefront of urban design thinking for other global cities. It’s in their ethos. They embrace the cold because, frankly, they have no other choice! Winter design is about accepting the cards we’re dealt, changing our ethos around being cold, and introducing flexibility and spontaneity to these seemingly chilly cities.

I think most cities like the idea of winter design because it inevitably fuels business and can introduce opportunity for small businesses to get creative in the way they serve their customers.

Winter design this year should be simple and cost-effective—and utilize materials that can live on. At the end of the season, greenery can be installed in the neighborhood for residents to enjoy for years to come!

What is your overall design philosophy for these types of public spaces?

For this winter, I think it makes sense to keep the design simple and inexpensive. That means wherever possible, using materials that are free, recycled, re-used, or that have another life in them. In the future, more formalized design, as well as construction technology and materials, can be employed.

The team’s design proposals seek to make the best use of available resources and what can be obtained at minimal expense. Walk us through the team’s thought process behind this.

This was really about giving people the ability to make something with nothing. We wanted to find ways business owners, city officials, maintenance teams—anyone really—could make some effective winter design contributions with minimal expense. We wanted to offer solutions that would not fall onto just business owners. We designed with the idea that municipally-funded or donation-based efforts could be harnessed to serve outdoor winter places.

Snow can be sculptural, it can define spaces, and it can be paired with lighting to produce creative and colorful nighttime experiences.

How important was it to you for the natural elements of these designs to not just be disposed of at the end of the season?

This was on my mind from the beginning. Businesses are struggling and owners may question making large new investments. And what happens if city laws prevent winter design efforts from sticking around post-COVID? That’s why we opted for simple and inexpensive solutions to tackle this challenge in the immediate.

The key to a successful winter space is shielding the wind and tricking yourself into enjoying the cold. Everything after that becomes an added bonus!

What kind of involvement will be needed from the public and city officials to make these designs work? (i.e. mindset shifts)

I would say for now, officials should invest in outdoor spaces for small businesses. Find ways to give these people the resources and flexibility they need to maximize their efforts and bolster their investments. Be open and flexible to creativity and change. Winter places will be made of all sorts of materials and take many shapes and forms. Officials must be open to this non-linear, non-uninform, ad-hoc style of urban design.

Pedaling is an engaging way to produce power and warm up while social distancing.

What advice do you have for a community that isn’t sure where to even begin?

Start with the direction of the wind—really. Determine where the prevailing winds are coming from (a quick web search of your area will help). Then think creatively about how you can safely block that wind. The key to a successful winter space is shielding the wind and tricking yourself into enjoying the cold. Everything after that becomes an added bonus! With a creative state of mind, winter doesn’t have to be so cold.


  • Adam Fearing

    Adam is a landscape designer known for his ability to develop tailored designs and his expertise in native New England plant species. He specializes in playgrounds, parks, trails and paths, placemaking design, streetscape design, and planting design.

    Contact Adam
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