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How Fort St. John, B.C., is trying to turn '6 months of winter' into a good thing

The city of Fort St. John in northeast B.C. is re-imaging itself as a "winter city," tapping into principles of urban design and community spirit to help light up the darker months.

Warming huts, outdoor lights and welcome kits among ideas for making the cold more fun

The annual High on Ice Festival in Fort St. John includes outdoor ice carving and contests such as "The Silly Bobsled Race." (City of Fort St. John)

The city of Fort St. John in northeast B.C. is re-imaging itself as a "winter city," tapping into principles of urban design and community spirit to help light up the darker months.

In doing so, city leaders hope to reverse the sentiment captured in a 2004 report from the University of Northern British Columbia that found "six months of winter" is a "marketing weakness" in trying to attract new residents.

"We are fixed in our geography but we are not fixed in our mindsets," said Chad Carlstrom of Urban Systems, a consulting firm leading Fort St. John's Winter City Strategy.

An empty lot was reimagined as an enclosed outdoor fire pit as part of a visioning session for how Fort St. John could better embrace winter in public spaces. (Urban Systems)

"We are here to create change that embraces the winter we live in."

Carlstrom and his team in Fort St. John have looked to Canadian cities such as Edmonton and Winnipeg for inspiration, and have cast an eye internationally to countries like Norway.

They've also worked with city residents and business owners for "made-in-Fort St. John" solutions to some of the challenges the colder months throw their way.

Listen to a full interview with Urban Systems' Chad Carlstrom on embracing winter.

The city of Fort St. John is trying to get residents and potential residents to see the bright side of long, dark winters. Robert Doane speaks to community consultant Chad Carlstrom about the Winter City strategy. 6:23

After two years of research, the team has come up with a series of "micro-projects" for the city to take on that range from community contests to re-designs of public parks. The idea, he said, is to have small, achievable goals for the city to take on in the coming years.

Here are some of the ideas Carlstrom and his colleague Dan Penner presented to city council at its most recent meeting on Jan. 22.

Turn on the lights

"The simple act of leaving a light on casts that glow of soft light into the pedestrian realm," Carlstrom said, contrasting images of downtown streets with and without light.

The simple act of leaving lights on, particularly on buildings, can help make cities more inviting during the dark days of winter, said Chad Carlstrom of Ubran Systems. (Urban Systems)

In some cases, communities add strings of lights to downtown streets or public parks during winter months, but Carlstrom said even encouraging private businesses to turn on exterior lights can help make the outdoors more appealing once night falls.

"This is where the private sector can contribute," he said. "Shovelling your sidewalk, leaving an exterior light on, these are smaller projects that are lower in resources in money and time, but higher in impact in the broader community"

Design outdoor spaces for the cold

"How do our parks and public spaces respond to winter conditions? How can we draw people out?"  Penner said he and his his team asked themselves these questions when looking at public spaces around Fort St. John.

The addition of warming huts in city parks is one way Fort St. John could make winter more inviting, said Dan Penner of Urban Systems. (Urban Systems)

To that end, Urban Spaces worked with a landscape architect to re-imagine existing parks in the city.

In one case, an empty lot was converted into a sheltered outdoor fire pit to act as a gathering space day and night. In another, warming shelters were added to walking paths and skating rinks.

"There's a huge opportunity to improve the environment that we live in," Penner said.

Help residents embrace the cold

When people from warmer climates arrive in Fort St. John, "it can be a bit of a shock" when temperature drop to -20 C and lower, Carlstrom said.

Contests and communications that embrace winter can help change attitudes towards the colder months, Urban Designs said. (City of Fort St. John)

To that end, he suggested winter welcome kits that include mitts and a snow shovel to help get people ready, or "even just a set of winter tips" for what they can expect. 

He also said contests or initiatives that reward people for clearing sidewalks or taking part in outdoor activities can help showcase the positive side of winter.


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