By Kevin Fraser

It is May, and spring has officially arrived in Charlottesville, Virginia. The feeling is palpable: birds chirping, bees buzzing, and residents venturing outside in droves.

For much of the planet, however, a different scene is playing out. In the Southern Hemisphere, the recent equinox was autumnal, beckoning an impending winter. For those inhabiting northern regions, the aforementioned spring display may seem a fanciful notion; a yet-distant reality, groundhog predictions notwithstanding.

Which begs the question: what design interventions exist to leverage the unique aspects of cooler climates and make the shorter, less hospitable days more palatable?

Skating, snowshoeing, and skiing are undoubtedly ingrained winter pastimes throughout much of Canada and the United States. But all of these could be considered destination activities in that they are likely to behoove a car trip and travel to a resort, chalet, or ice rink. For urban dwellers, besides the latter – neighborhood hockey arenas – traditionally conceived cities offer little in the way of these types of opportunities.

There are certainly exceptions. New York City’s Central Park has its infamous and oft-photographed Wollman Rink, open from October through April. The cool winter climate of Canada’s capital, Ottawa, allows for skating on its beloved Rideau Canal that, when fully operational, offers a nearly 5-mile scenic skate, complete with obligatory BeaverTails cabins for sustenance.

For Matt Gibbs, a landscape designer at PWL Partnership Landscape Architects in Vancouver, British Columbia, these precedents were informative. They served as case studies and provided inspiration for his master’s thesis: a conceived ‘Freezeway’ – that is, a public skating trail – through his hometown of Edmonton. Four years later, Matt’s vision has become a reality; the city has built a pilot project, largely cut from the cloth of his original concept.

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The Edmonton Freezeway (Rendering: Matt Gibbs)

For Matt, the allure was in the challenge of how to incite outdoor activity, even when temperatures are well below freezing. In his own words: “With Edmonton being one of the most auto-oriented cities in Canada, I wanted to come up with a way to seduce people outside in the time of year when most are hibernating.”

Freezeway Pilot - Phase 1 Render (Full size)

The Freezeway Pilot Project as Envisioned by Matt Gibbs (Rendering: Matt Gibbs)

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The As-Built Freezeway Pilot Project in Edmonton (Photo: Matt Gibbs)

“My intent was to connect people with the landscape that they live in and, in this case, the unique climate,” says Gibbs. Part of the problem he saw was the failing of his city “to acknowledge its climatic context” evidenced by the fact it has been designed and “built in the exact same way as a city in California or Texas.”

Matt isn’t alone in this line of thinking. The Winter Cities Institute is a network of multidisciplinary collaborators that represent some of the globe’s perennially cool corners. From their website: “The Winter Cities Institute was organized to identify, promote and share the positive attributes of winter living, new concepts in architecture and urban design, and success stories from those places that are thriving in the north.” A worthwhile venture, to be sure. Indeed, perhaps the first, crucial step is in bringing a greater awareness to the possibilities that are easily within reach for aspiring winter cities.

The city of Holland, Michigan shares Edmonton’s ambitions, but is taking an inverse approach: keeping its streets free of ice. Beneath the city’s Main Street – its principal commercial corridor – are 168 miles of coiled tubing that heat the road and sidewalks, preventing snow and ice buildup. Unsurprisingly, this is the largest publicly owned snowmelt system in the country, and unquestionably an innovative effort to encourage use of public space.

Despite strides made in North America, the epicenter of winter city innovation resides in Scandinavia. This is not a revelation for anyone that has visited Norway’s capital, Oslo, during the winter months, and seen residents hauling cross-country skis amid suit-clad commuters on the metro. Oulu, Finland – a city of nearly 200,000 people situated a mere 120 miles south of the Arctic Circle – is making a strong case for something less conventional: winter cycling. Reports put its bicycle modal share figures at 32% in the summer and 12% in winter. The latter proportion would still be good enough to easily outrank North America’s most lauded “bicycle-friendly” cities.

Anders Swanson is an artist and sustainable transportation designer based in Winnipeg. He saw many parallels between his city and Oulu, where he attended the world’s first Winter Cycling Congress in 2013 (earlier this year the U.S. hosted the event for the first time, in Minneapolis and Saint Paul). It was during this visit to Finland that Anders cites a spark of inspiration: “the moment I realized winter cycling was going to become normal.” This led him to initiate International Winter Bike to Work Day. Held on February 12th of this past year – Zagreb, Croatia beat out Oulu for top ridership figures – it has seen participant numbers balloon from 500 in its inaugural year to over 10,000 for the latest installment.

These inventive precedents would seem to suggest that planners, landscape architects and others responsible for shaping our cities should be taking note. After all, here are opportunities to not only foster an improved sense of community and place, but also do wonders for our mental and physical wellbeing. Some, like Anders Swanson, already get it. Matt Gibbs also counts himself among the converted. He sees the untapped potential for altogether new, biophilic sensory experiences that vastly exceed our current expectations. “On top of finding ways to promote physical and social activity, I was trying to find ways to put people in a position where they could start to have more people-to-plant relationships that are impossible to have from behind a speeding car’s windshield.”

References:

Martinez, S. (2016, February 25). Why Michigan city spends millions to heat its streets during winter. Retrieved from http://www.mlive.com/business/west-michigan/index.ssf/2016/02/why_holland_spends_millions_to.html

Swanson, A. (2016, February 12). Ice cycles: The northerly world cities leading the winter bicycle revolution. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/feb/12/ice-cycles-northerly-world-cities-winter-bicycle-revolution

Winter Cities Institute. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://wintercities.com/home/about/

Resources:

News Coverage of the Edmonton Freezeway Pilot Project: http://globalnews.ca/video/2417193/freezeway-skating-path-opens-to-the-public-2

International Winter Bike to Work Day Website: http://winterbiketoworkday.org

Winter Cities Institute Website: http://wintercities.com/home/

Winter Cycling Congress Website: http://wintercyclingcongress2016.org