September 14, 2020

Why realized winter cities are essential in a pandemic

Public Space and Land Art

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Like many people, my mood changes with the weather. In the wintertime, I often indulge my antisocial, grumpy, tired side more often than my sociable, cheerful, active side.

Handling these emotions during a Winnipeg winter doesn’t help much either. Our winters are cold, dry and dark, sometimes dipping into the low 50s due to the windchill.

Still, this winter feels direr because we’re in a pandemic. I’m anxious to think about what COVID-19 will do to exacerbate my mood and potentially hinder my ability to alleviate it.

The chief health minister of Canada told reporters that she anticipates that we will wear masks for the next two years even with a vaccine. That means social distancing is more a long-term reality than one isolated to the year 2020.

Consequently, it feels impossible to talk about winter landscapes without mentioning the pandemic we're in—and still will be for the foreseeable future. With cities that are mainly cold or all-season, public spaces with winter interventions in mind will be integral to our mental and physical health.

Winnipeggers have always embraced our winters, but something has changed over the last decade as residents have approached winter activities from new and exciting angles. While Festival du Voyageur has been a staple since 1969, events such as the pop-up restaurant RAW: almond, the Warming Huts, the Old Market Square ice rink and the Ice Castles have transformed the way Winnipeggers experience winter.

What these events reflect is our desire to seek out and find entertainment that brings us outside and into nature in the dead of winter. As my colleague, Kristen Struthers highlighted in her article, Attention: Have you gone outside lately?, there is a direct and consistent correlation between feeling happy and spending time outside.

A good part of the reason I’m a far happier person in the summertime is because of how many opportunities there are to spend outside. Whether that is at Bonny Castle Park, reading and drinking wine, or in the Exchange District, walking and drinking wine—just kidding — I’m visiting local shops and restaurants. It’s not to say that I can’t do either of those things in winter, but it’s certainly not as pleasant.

According to Norman Pressman, Professor Emeritus of Planning and Urban Design at the University of Waterloo, in Shaping Cities for Winter, “there are many concepts, which when properly applied, can help to produce compassionate and even exciting winter cities. [This includes] the use of heliotropic principles whereby buildings for work and habitation should receive a maximum of precious direct sunlight, and where shadows cast by structures on other forms and open spaces should be minimized or eliminated, especially during the period of the winter solstice when hours brief. Urban public space should be exposed to sunlight and be as wind-protected as possible… Ice and snow should be used in creative ways, especially for civil art, such as sculpture and urban decoration.”

Designing for winter landscapes is uncommon. It’s often an under-appreciated aspect of planning landscapes because the sentiment boils down to: well, how many people will use the space in the wintertime? Will this extra investment be worth it?

In my humble opinion, yes. Yes, it will. What is that famous Kevin Costner quote from Field of Dreams — “If you build it, they will come”? As corny as it sounds, I believe that to be true. Look at the opening celebration of Bokeh, Nadi Design and Takashi Iwasaki’s lighting installation for Kildonan Park Duck Pond. Thousands of Winnipeggers came out to skate on a freezing January evening in 2019.

When the Winnipeg Arts Council invited artist-led teams to submit a proposal for the creation of a feature lighting art installation, their main goal was to create a destination for park-goers in winter. Enchanted by the bokeh effect, an aesthetic quality where a camera lens blurs points of colour and light to produce a polychromatic image that is pleasing to the eye, the team wanted to “inject colour back into the park’s white winter canvas”.

Even though Bokeh’s installation is permanent, there are small interventions that landscape architects can make to create more desirable places for people. Tactical urbanism focuses exclusively on these types of transformations. Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia, founders of the movement, describe Tactical Urbanism as “an approach to neighbourhood building and activation using short-term, low-cost, and scalable interventions and policies… It makes use of an open and iterative development process, the efficient use of resources, and the creative potential unleashed by social interaction.”

Or in this case, social distancing.

One of tactical urbanism’s well-known projects was the 376 locally sourced rubber lawn chairs placed in Times Square. Perhaps, we could find similar opportunities that adhere to social distancing measures and guidelines for a winter environment?

Even something as simple as using materials with winter appeal such as evergreen plants and hardscape materials that contrast with the snow remain satisfactory integrations that can make a space more inviting for the public to engage with and use.

We should aim to offer environments people want to live in and deserve. Pressman elaborates that the goals and objectives of Winter City design and planning should be the following:

  • rejecting denial of our potentials and opportunities.
  • taking measure to curtail importing of “California-type” styles in building design.
  • applauding innovative interventions already taken in design.
  • increasing awareness and educations for winter’s demands.
  • conceiving future plans and designs with winter in mind.
  • designing in harmony with nature and its diverse expressions.
  • shifting attitudes —thinking in winter mode
  • acknowledge winter explicitly in urban development policy.
  • adopting a “winter-oriented” organizational perspective.
  • developing energy-efficient, sustainable urban frameworks.
  • generating local and regional pride.
  • securing a globally competitive position for northern towns.
  • ensuring success in socio-economic and physical well-being.

As someone who lives in an apartment without private green space to call their own, designed winter landscapes are a necessity to escape the confines of my home. It’s not crazy in a city like Winnipeg to expect an evolution in our relationship with winter and find opportunities outside of tobogganing and ice skating to entertain ourselves (that was an affectionate slight, by the way. I enjoy tobogganing and ice skating immensely).

Moreover, when we think of opportunities related to winter cities, we also can’t overlook the essential component of ensuring these opportunities are inclusive. Convenience for those who live with accessibility issues is integral to achieving the goals and objectives of winter city design and planning.

Pressman writes, “to improve the quality of life in winter cities, it is necessary to reduce inconvenience.” This does not just mean me and my capabilities, but those who require a wheelchair, cane or other walking accessories to move around. Pressman mentions that pedestrian movement and networks should be designed with winter in mind to reduce negative stressors and optimize exposure to its beneficial aspects.

In How landscape architects can bridge the gap between in and outdoor spaces, Diana Garcia postulated what our understanding of essential services would look like in a post-pandemic world. Even though I’d argue this is relevant right now, too. She quoted Amal Mahrouki, director of legislative affairs with AIA Pennsylvania, who stipulated, “People don't typically think of architects as first responders, but they can be if they've gone through the right training.”

I agree with Mahrouki’s statement. However, this is not fully realized without the expertise of a landscape architect as they can transform “how we use and inhabit buildings, public and open space, including regulations and guidelines to make room for social distancing without compromising the quality of the built and natural environment.” This method of thinking is critical to the design and creation of winter landscapes, too.

Right now, and probably well into the future, collectively, our jobs within our communities are and will be to slow down the spread of the virus. In the summertime, this is much easier because there are more opportunities to spend time outside while practicing social distancing.

However, in the winter, not so much. Applying and investing in winter landscapes is critical, but it doesn’t have to be expensive either. Whether it’s long-term installations or temporary pop-ups, we can do so much to effectively use public space all year round, even in a pandemic.