Designing the perfect winter city
Winter is Winnipeg’s thing. It’s what we’re known for. It unifies us like a legion heading into battle. As we prepare to collectively stare down another winter, however, the city of Edmonton is quietly threatening to invade our turf. They not only showed up last week to beat us at our favourite winter sport, they are now trying to beat us at winter itself.
In a few weeks, Edmonton’s urban planning committee and city council will be presented with an official winter design policy, a planning document that outlines an innovative set of winter-specific urban design guidelines, with the goal of transforming the Alberta capital into an international model for winter city design. Once adopted, its recommendations will influence zoning bylaws, design standards and approval processes by viewing them through the unique lens of winter living. With these new guidelines, Edmonton is hoping to turn a traditional winter hibernation into an outdoor urban celebration.
Winnipeg has led the way with several grassroots festivals, activities and community initiatives that have begun to change our attitudes about winter living, but embedding winter-specific design principles into official civic policy is a visionary idea that could have a transformational effect on the character of Edmonton’s architectural and urban form.
The guidelines will implement several design strategies to help make outdoor spaces comfortable and inviting in all seasons, by focusing on the creation of comfortable urban microclimates. Wind and sunlight are the two key elements that impact thermal comfort in urban areas. Environment Canada has indicated by controlling these factors through design, we can make outdoor public spaces feel warmer by as much as 10 C on cold days.
Edmonton’s new guidelines hope to encourage outdoor winter activity by considering the impact of design elements at every scale. On an urban design level, dense development is promoted, with short city blocks that reduce walking distances. The use of urban alleyways is encouraged as an opportunity to provide smaller, sheltered spaces with shops, restaurants and pedestrian connections to adjoining streets. In strategic areas, the guidelines recommend buildings include small setbacks or pocket parks along the sidewalk to create sun traps and wind shelters that incorporate dense materials such as stone and brick to naturally absorb and reflect heat.
The document also advocates for development of more low-rise buildings to help break up the wind and provide access to sunlight on the sidewalks. Zoning changes are suggested to create streets that have buildings with varied heights, to reduce the wind tunnel effect, while taller structures are to be located on the north sides of streets and should be designed with massing that steps back from the sidewalks as they rise, to reduce shadows at the ground.
At an architectural scale, designers are encouraged to establish strong indoor-outdoor relationships, by creating buildings with many public entrances and small storefronts aligned directly to the sidewalk, so pedestrians can find regular locations to warm up. Requirements for buildings to include awnings, arcades and overhangs are promoted as a way of providing outdoor shelter from wind, snow and rain. The use of colour on building facades is encouraged, along with permanent and seasonal lighting to provide a visual warmth to the outdoor environment, particularly during the long, dark winter months.
Recommendations for landscape design include development of urban spaces with public art and street furnishings that incorporate windscreens, gas firepits and other heating sources. Trees, plants and landscape elements are also seen as an important design opportunity to create outdoor rooms that control wind, sun and drifting snow in public places.
By carefully implementing these strategies, designers can affect human comfort in our urban environments in very significant ways. Commitment to these principles could result in the development of a unique northern city that supports a vibrant and active urban lifestyle in every season.
We have generally used technology to fight our battles against climate and have in many ways built cities that turn their backs on winter, with skywalks that replace sidewalks and climate-controlled malls instead of urban shopping streets. This has not only made a lasting impact on quality of life in many northern cities during the colder months but often affects public priorities and investment in the warmer seasons as well.
There is often opposition to new ideas in cities such as Winnipeg if they are viewed as having limited seasonal use. Year-round urban amenities such as protected bike lanes, pedestrian-oriented downtown streets or walkable residential neighbourhoods are often dismissed with the sentiment that we can’t do that here because it’s too cold. With good design, however, outdoor winter participation can be increased, optimizing public investment. As an example, when bike-lane systems in Montreal and Minneapolis were designed and maintained with winter use as a priority, cycling rates more than doubled overall, and winter participation has been growing three times faster than summer use.
Edmonton’s winter design policy is an inspiring first step toward making a long-term cultural shift in our perception of winter living. Their leadership is an opportunity for Winnipeg to set its own priorities for winter city design. By promoting innovative, homegrown approaches to architectural, urban and landscape design that naturally encourages more outdoor winter living, we can improve our quality of life and capitalize on the unique opportunities of our northern climate.
*Brent Bellamy is chairman of CentreVenture’s board and the creative director at Number Ten Architectural Group.*