How Urban Design Warms Up Cold-Weather Cities

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Instead of fleeing from it, Edmonton is bundling up and embracing its frigid winters through smart urban design and civic engagement. . (Photo: Heidi G/flickr)

Much attention has been paid to how urban design can help overcrowded and perilously hot cities cool down as the planet warms and the global population shifts away from rural areas.

Less discussed is how climate-sensitive design can aid northern cities where the weather is extreme in the reverse — places that don't necessarily bake like a concrete oven in summer and aren't lashed by tropical storms come fall; places characteristically more shiver-inducing than sweltering. How can urban design make residents healthier and happier in cities notorious for being really, really cold?

Historically, city planners in cold-weather North American cities have gone out of their way to work around brutal winter temps instead of with them. Throughout the 20th century, going outside while downtown became optional in numerous northern cities through the creation of pedestrian skyways, underground tunnels and labyrinthine subterranean mini-cities a la Montreal’s RÉSO.

Moving pedestrian life indoors often means that downtown cores are sucked free of street-level hustle-and-bustle for a long stretch of the year. Sometimes, city-dwellers remain inside longer, even after the temps rise and it’s safe to go outside without donning Planet Hoth-inspired outerwear. While nice — and often necessary — to have an amenity-filled refuge to turn to when the weather outside is frightful, civic life that exists solely within a climate-controlled bubble located above or below the street year-round can be detrimental. Street life risks becoming unattractive, obsolete.

Edmonton, the capital city of Alberta and North America’s northernmost city with a metro area that's population exceeds 1 million, wants to prove that cold-weather cities can have it both ways, inside and out.

Home to a perennially divisive 8-mile network of tunnels and elevated walkways known as the Edmonton Pedway (not to mention one of the world's largest shopping malls), this fast-growing Canadian city with exceptionally frigid winters has the indoors firmly covered. But in recent years, Edmonton has also gone all-out luring people outdoors. City leaders are embracing arctic temps and recommending design strategies that make the outdoors more alluring. Sure, the weather may be eyebrow-freezingly bad — average wintertime lows in Edmonton hover around 14 degrees Fahrenheit and can dip much lower — but why not make the best of it?

Snowman in Edmonton, Alberta
Not so harsh: Edmonton casts a warm, romantic glow during the winter months. (Photo: Mack Male/flickr)

Blocking wind, chasing the sun

In late 2016, Edmonton City Council endorsed comprehensive Winter Design Guidelines geared to make the built environment less hostile to pedestrians in cold and icy climes.

Trees, not surprisingly, play a crucial role. Per city guidelines, dense rows of evergreens — spruce, in particular — serve as effective wind-blockers along popular walking trails and paths while deciduous trees enable the bright winter sun to reach where it’s needed the most. Similarly, buildings — especially buildings that have adjacent outdoor space, including patios and public plazas — should be oriented toward the south for maximum sunlight exposure. (Despite frigid winter temps, Edmonton enjoys unusually abundant sunshine almost year-round.)

New and tall buildings should be strategically designed with features like balconies, podiums and stepped-back facades that block prevailing winds and downdrafts. Skyscraper-speckled Edmonton already has dastardly wind tunnels in spades. Even colossal snow mounds can be used to block wind — and give city-dwellers a designated place to frolic in the white stuff. (Worth noting: One of the many downsides to pedway networks found in cities like Edmonton is that elevated passageways and pedestrian bridges can accelerate wind speeds at street-level.)

"We’ve done a really good job of creating hostile micro-climates," city council member Ben Henderson told the Edmonton Journal in 2016, referring to the city’s plentitude of north-facing outdoor spaces and downtown wind tunnels.

Winter Design Principles, Edmonton
City councillors want to see the implementation of more winter-centric design standards. (Photo: WinterCity Edmonton)

City councillors want to see the implementation of more winter-centric design standards. (Image: WinterCity Edmonton)

On the aesthetic front, buildings and public spaces should employ bursts of color — bright enough to help offset winter darkness but also warm enough to prevent glare and "enliven the winterscape." Similarly, outdoor lighting should be warm, pedestrian-scale and help cast oft-overlooked buildings and infrastructure in an ethereal glow.

Other winter design strategies include installing push-button heaters at high-traffic bus stops; widening sidewalks; raising crosswalks to make navigating the streets easier, particularly for those with mobility issues; installing barrier-free warming huts in public parks and along trails; and improving cycling infrastructure for increased wintertime bike commuting. The recommendations — many of them inspired by or lifted directly from Scandinavian cities — go on and on.

Of course, 93-pages chock-full of beneficial cold-weather design recommendations aren’t all that beneficial unless they’re installed, instituted and written into zoning law. Some, including design considerations related to tree placement, already have been.

"They’re meaningless if they just sit on the shelf," Sue Holdsworth, coordinator of Edmonton’s so-called WinterCity Strategy and advisor to the Winter Cities Institute, tells the Journal.

Ice rink at city hall, Edmonton, Alberta
In Edmonton, even city hall has an ice rink. (Photo: IQRemix/flickr)

Unabashedly in love ... with winter

Edmonton clearly has plenty of smart ideas on how to make outdoor life more hospitable during the winter: blocking wind, capturing sunlight, beautifying public spaces and limiting the expansion of the Edmonton Pedway are at the core of the city’s WinterCity Strategy. (The guidelines explain why the Pedway gets such a specific call out: "generally, elevated systems are considered bad for civic life, bad for retail business and bad for culture ...")

But perhaps most crucially, Edmonton is duly rewarding those who venture outdoors. After all, why bundle up and brave the elements if there’s no reason to?

With over 900,000 residents living in the city proper, Edmonton has succeeded in flipping the narrative on winter and, by some small miracle, managed to generate genuine excitement about several prolonged months of biting cold. Instead of resenting winter, Edmonton owns it.

As Simon O'Byrne, an urban planner and co-chair of the city's WinterCity Strategy, tells CityLab: "Winter conjures up these very nostalgic images — think Joni Mitchell skating on a river. It captures the whole essence of Canadian romanticism, which people actually love."

He adds: "Edmonton’s not going to out-New-York New York, it’s not going to beat out Southern California for weather, but what we can be is a great mid-size city in North America that reacts really well to its environment."

Key to this — aside from actively promoting nippy weather as the greatest thing to ever happen to this mid-size Canadian city — is the use of parks and public spaces for cultural programming and (limited) commercial development that provides "people a place to linger, warm up and enjoy."

Come winter, Edmonton functions as a sort of revolving showcase for glacial art installations, one-off al fresco events and lively annual festivals. (All are conveniently listed in the city's annual "Winter Excitement Guide.") In 2015, Edmonton garnered headlines for opening the Edmonton Freezeway, a spectacularly illuminated artificial ice trail now known as the Victoria Park IceWay. (The trail’s creator, Matt Gibbs, envisioned more of an extensive pedestrian "ice highway" than the scaled-back skating loop eventually developed by the city.)

Ice Castles, a Narnia-esque walk-though attraction, recently opened to enthusiastic, bundled-up crowds for its third consecutive year at Hawrelak Park in the city’s public green space-laced river valley. A hugely appealing conceptual scheme — one of 10 shortlisted proposals for a city landmark design contest called the Edmonton Project — would see a handful of Scandinavian-style public saunas open within the river valley (if, of course, the concept happens to win).

"We've got nice, cold, dry winters and a beautiful river valley. We need this," urban planner and concept co-creator Emma Sandborn tells CBC Radio.

Ice castles, skating trails, riverside parkland dotted with saunas ... Edmonton is the closest thing you’ll find to a real-deal cold-weather urban utopia in North America. And other northern cities have taken notice. Recently writing for the Ottawa Citizen, David Reevely praises Edmonton’s WinterCity strategy while wondering why his own city can’t better celebrate its own cold-weather qualities.

"Edmonton has the advantage of more consistent and predictable winter conditions — less slush and wet, more cold and clear. The variability of our weather is a challenge for outdoor fun, for sure," writes Reevely. "But the evidence is right in front of us, and in 2017 it’s been stronger than ever: Ottawans will go outside and play in the cold, given half a chance. Let’s make more chances."

As much of North America emerges from a brutal cold spell with rest of winter not looking all that much better, it might seem difficult to love chilly weather quite as much as Edmonton does. (I, for one, am already done.) Still, there's something refreshing about how Canada's sixth largest city has refused to turn its back to the cold. By using urban design and civic engagement to transform less-than-ideal weather into an attribute, Edmonton is evolving into a city that's livable during all seasons, even seasons that prompt an oh hell no the second you step out the door.