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Embracing winter – learning from international experience part II


In the sequel to her previous blog on planning for outdoor socialisation in winter, Dr Alina Congreve focuses in on work by Canadian local government – in particular their production of winter design guidelines.

In Canadian cities, residents live during the long winter months with sub-zero temperatures. Many cities therefore pro-actively plan for winter through a combination of urban design interventions and cultural programming in outdoor spaces. Those co-ordinating efforts to improve the city for the winter argue that a focus specifically on winter enhances residents’ experience year-round. Encouraging people to get outside improves peoples’ physical health, mental health and levels of satisfaction with where they live.

One of the most established examples of pro-active winter planning is the city of Edmonton. It has integrated a number of loosely connected winter cultural and sporting initiatives into a more strategic, longer-term ambition to turn Edmonton into a great winter city. This began in 2010 when a forward-thinking city councillor convened discussion forums and supported a research study. This led to the formation in 2012 of a WinterCity Think Tank, which spent six months researching best practice from winter cities around the world. There was also an in-depth public engagement exercise run in parallel to try and understand how residents could come to love being in their city in the winter months.

In 2016 Edmonton launched a set of Winter Design Guidelines. The Guidelines are intended to shape public sector redevelopments and influenced private sector projects. They highlight for architects, urban designers and planners good design in winter cities and are structured around five winter design principles:

  • Incorporate strategies to block wind
  • Maximize exposure to sunshine through orientation and design
  • Use colour to enliven the cityscape
  • Create visual interest with strategic use of lighting
  • Provide the infrastructure that supports the desired winter life

While some considerations such as orientation need to be considered early in the design phase, others are much easier to retrofit into existing developments. For example, connecting pedestrian spaces with treed arcades, awnings or canopies will moderate the impacts of winter weather, particularly where pedestrian traffic is present or desired.

Other elements of a Winter Strategy are: to deliver cultural programming; supporting hospitality and tourism businesses; and city branding and marketing. These can all work more effectively within a public realm that is better adapted to winter. The Winter Strategy is underpinned by a robust evaluation framework, which helps highlight parts that need further work. Changes to urban design is a particular focus where residents and businesses wanted to see further progress, with better protection from the wind in outdoor spaces, improved pedestrian winter lighting and improvements to transit shelters to give a better day-to-day experience of winter living. A growing trend has been businesses approaching the Winter City officials with their own ideas, which they can sometimes help facilitate or point to other resources.

Following Edmonton’s lead, more Canadian cities including Ottawa and Saskatoon have been developing their own winter urban design guidelines. These initiatives to encourage change to the design of parks, squares and other public spaces have connections with longer-established winter carnivals, winter arts festivals and winter sports. These provided forums to take winter planning forward where community groups, businesses and city authorities already had successful collaborations. In Winnipeg, an architecture and design-led approach is taken with an annual competition to create new outdoor structures. People enjoying outdoor exercise including walking, skiing and skating used to take a short break from the elements in temporary wooden huts. Since 2009, an architectural competition to design winter structures has grown in scale and ambition to see entries from young Canadian designers alongside international architectural practices.

The Covid-19 public health crisis has brought interest from even more cities in Canada and also in the US, with officials from Edmonton in demand to offer advice. In Calgary, winters are less severe than Edmonton, but outdoor activity in the winter months is much less common. Calgary was due to begin work on its own strategic winter plan in 2020, but this was put on hold as city officials had to deal with pressing demands from the pandemic. The city is now looking at using public money allocated for innovation funding to encourage hospitality and other businesses to be creative and try things out.

But how well does the Canadian idea of pro-active planning for winter work in other contexts? In London, the Cadogan Estate manage an area of central London that includes Sloane St, Pavilion Road, Duke of York Square and King’s Road. In September, it planned to develop design interventions begun in the spring, to support outdoor dining and socialising through the winter months. Under the Covid changes to the planning system in England introduced in April, there is considerable flexibility to carry out temporary interventions through licensing rather than full planning permission. Consultation with residents groups remains active but unlike the formal planning process, any questions or concerns can be answered immediately and changes made to proposals while they are still under development. Covid-19 has led to a much greater recognition on the part of residents of the need to support local businesses and for design changes that benefit them. In addition to residents groups, a public survey was carried out on the 19 December to gain additional feedback on the changes to the public realm.

These changes include the addition of 24 tables and 96 seats in the public realm, providing spaces for people to buy food and drinks to take away from local restaurants and then sit and eat them with friends or family. Screens and canopies provide additional protection for diners eating at tables immediately outside cafes and restaurants. It is important to try and ensure that measures that support outdoor living don’t compromise sustainability and instead use carefully sourced materials, such as the bamboo parasols that have been introduced. Consideration was given to more comprehensive glass covering of dining areas, but quickly discarded through concerns it would create a ‘shopping mall’ atmosphere. Cadogan estate managers and local businesses have noticed a much greater willingness by the public to dress for winter. This could have longer-term benefits as outdoor dining allows for an additional 500 seats, adding considerably to the capacity of many restaurants with relatively modest indoor space. There are also opportunities for more active recreation, and in Sloane Square a temporary curling rink has been installed. In the Duke of York Square, the food market is arranged in a socially distanced circle around the running track, allowing a clear one-way system and easy crowd control. In the future, Cadogan estates are keen to experiment with more ambitious temporary structures, which can be rolled out into the public spaces as they are needed.

Like any idea from a different cultural context and climate, Winter Strategies need to be adapted and not simply imitated. However, pro-actively planning for winter by thinking more about how outdoor spaces can be used year-round is a useful principle, and working toward this in tandem with residents and businesses has much to offer towns and cities with less severe climates. The experiences of 2020 also indicate that the relaxation of the sections of the planning system introduced for Covid-19, which allow more flexible and creative use of temporary structures, could be further developed – in consultation with local communities.

Embracing winter – learning from international experience part I


One thought on “Embracing winter – learning from international experience part II

  1. A very informative article-very interesting to read about the Winter Design Guidelines from Edmonton, Canada, and how other cities in Canada are following suit. It’s also very encouraging to read that the UK has introduced more flexibility in planning since Covid so that changes can be made to an external environment in order to encourage people to enjoy spending more time outside. This is vital, as with the continuing Covid restrictions, this will benefit both physical and mental health.

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