How urban design can help make winters less miserable

Season-conscious mindset and urban design can help us embrace winter instead of avoiding it.
Hoarfrost and sunshine, a beautiful sight to wake up to, New Year's Day 2020. (Michelle Parise/CBC)

Love it or hate it, winter is an inseparable part of life in Canada, and a season-conscious mindset and city design can help us embrace winter instead of avoiding it. 

From record snowfall in a normally temperate Vancouver, to cold snaps in Alberta, to an unprecedented winter storm in parts of Newfoundland, this year is already off to a snowy start across the country. The seasonal challenges, along with their usual solutions — removing snow from city roads and sidewalks, reminding drivers about the importance of appropriate tires — may be the only way some of us experience winter, but some local initiatives are working to change that.

The WinterCity project in Edmonton, for example, combines urban design guidelines with an abundant cultural schedule of events to help residents enjoy the outdoors. 

"Focusing on winter is really a way to make Edmonton a better city year-round," Isla Tanaka, the WinterCity coordinator, told Spark's Nora Young. "If we build for year-round use, people will use it year-round, which gets people outside, it improves physical health, it improves mental health, and it makes everybody healthier." 

An important part of winter design is introducing an element of play into one's daily routine, according to the Melbourne School of Design professor Michele Acuto. "You might see people taking up different things, skiing around the city. You can take these things jokingly, or you can take this as people understanding their space in different ways and playing with it."

If you're a winter hater, as Stanford University psychologist Kari Leibowitz says she used to be, she recommends finding something to look forward to in the snowy dark months. 

In 2015, Leibowitz moved to the northern Norwegian city of Tromsø to figure out how residents stay happy during the polar night in the winter. "In Tromsø, I was exposed to this very different kind of mindset that saw winter as a time full of opportunities," she said.

Tromsø residents appreciated both the indoor and outdoor winter activities. "People talked about opportunities for recreation like skiing or snowshoeing, being outside in the snow. People also talked about opportunities for things they could do inside," Leibowitz said. "They talked a lot about it being a very special reflective, contemplative, cozy time of year."

So if you prefer staying in on cold days, Leibowitz recommends really leaning in to cozy activities. 

"Instead of thinking about it as being forced to stay inside, think of that as you're deliberately choosing to enjoy this time of year and what it offers," she said. "You're going to read that big stack of books that's been on your nightstand forever. You're going to binge that show you've been hearing about."


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