January 20, 2020

How to design for a winter landscape

Public Space and Land Art

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Climate is considered to be restricting to urban development and construction, but with the changing concept of the city, it has been strongly advocated that “season is an opportunity rather than problem.”  

Wenbo Duan and Long Shao


When picturing a city's natural environment, we might imagine trees placed intermittently around tall buildings, small swathes of grass for public spaces and bright floral displays bursting with colour along a street.

For seasonal cities, however, snow is a crucial component missing from this imaginary urban fabric and is often overlooked when planning outdoor spaces.

What does a lush, colourful garden look like in the winter? Often nothing more than a series of snow piles and pointy sticks. To avoid seasonal neglect, an urban landscape should be designed for winter enjoyment along with its popular summer features.

What is winter landscape architecture? It could be as simple as an outdoor plaza covered in snow. The problem arises when green space usage over a year is analyzed: the winter season usually lacks in outdoor visitors compared with the summer season. So why don't we venture outside in the winter?

Well, first, it's much colder and therefore less comfortable to venture out. The cold weather presents effort in itself, including longer commute times and large amounts of snow clearing. And second, we may as well look at a white wall in comparison to the bright, colourful imagery of summer.

While the harsh wind and snow provided by the season can't be changed, we can transform the winter's blank canvas into something memorable, meaningful, and inspirational. This is what defines an effective winter landscape project: it's an outdoor public space which highlights or reveals a desirable aspect of the cold season.

So, how do we create captivating winter landscapes? Using materials with winter appeal is an excellent way to start, including evergreen plants, hardscape materials, or artificial public art displays. This has been done with the skating trail at The Forks in Winnipeg, where bright lights line the path, inviting visitors to skate through a dreamlike wonderland and enjoy the night.

Another material to consider is snow and water. Ice sculptures are an attention-grabbing addition to our barren winter landscapes. Many cities, including Winnipeg, have utilized winter's natural materials.
Ice sculptures have been situated along Broadway and The Forks, revealing the potential for ice and snow as an artistic medium.

Nadi Design's land art lighting installation at Kildonan Park Duck Pond was designed with a winter landscape in mind. Bokeh has a series of colourful orbs situated on tall poles, an artistic twist to standard lamppost schemes. These orbs create light patterns on the pond, turning what would otherwise be a white sheet of ice into a colourful playground for skaters. It's artistic installations like this which inspire people to venture outside, even during the harshest time of the year.

A more naturalistic use of winter design is found at Teardrop Park in New York City. Dark rock walls and textures create a natural contrast to the fallen snow. Icicles hang from the bluestone ice wall located in the park, where dramatic ice forms are created as the season changes.

Teardrop Park is one of many places with winter appeal and acts as an inspiration to year-round green space plans. It shows that we can mix yellow grasses and black rocks into the scheme, creating fantastic and intricate forms to contrast the snow and ice.

Even though the limited variety of plant material with winter appeal makes working with the natural landscape a challenge, the opportunities with snow, freezing temperatures, and hardscape materials in combination with plants give winter public space potential and a multitude of possibilities.

Inspiring winter spaces will invite more people to go outside during the cold months, which will improve human health. Going out in the winter improves mental health and allows for exercise. Promoting active living through design can be achieved with activities such as skiing, skating, or simply walking through an impressive land art display. If planned accordingly, a park or green space can have just as many visitors in the winter as it does in the summer.

Winter provides a greater extent of prospects for landscape architecture. From skating trails and toboggan slides to festivals and snow sculptures, wintertime has played an essential role in the development and lifestyle of winter cities. Designers can recognize and utilize this unique role by creating outdoor spaces that will house and improve these festivities. Winter projects can celebrate cold climates, thereby contributing to a city’s seasonal identity.

It is essential to recognize the significance of winter, the opportunities it provides, and its potential for striking and unique urban designs. Winter parks, land art, and gardens will inspire us to re-imagine winter as a nice change of scenery every year. Winter is a blank canvas, just waiting for designers, artists, planners, and landscape architects to highlight and reveal all of its great features.