This feature was previously published at OnTheCommons.org and was written by Jay Walljasper. It has been adapted for the Commons audience.
Mark Twain famously said, everyone talks about the weather but no one does anything about it. Well, actually you can do quite a lot about the weather in terms of how people think about and experience it.
I live in Minneapolis, and actually like the winter here. It’s invigorating. It’s beautiful. It opens up a rhythm in our lives for contemplation and reflection. And it makes me really, truly appreciative of spring, summer and fall weather. No one in Minnesota is ever ho-hum about a sunny day in the 70s, or sometimes even one in the 50s. Yet it’s hard to convince people living in warmer places that I am not just making that up to comfort myself about a lousy climate.
A lack of vision—not freezing temperatures, cloudy skies, early sunsets or deep snow—is the biggest problem facing cold weather cities. As Gil Penalosa, founder of 8-80 Cities and Colombian that now resides in Toronto, explains, “Winter is really a question of mental attitude. Thanks to new lightweight warm clothes you don’t have to pile on thick coats and three layers of mufflers like you once did. It’s much easier to enjoy yourself outside. It’s really up to you how much fun you have in winter.”
The Real Reason for the Wintertime Blues
I think a lot of the depression blamed on winter weather is really more about the sense of isolation we feel this time of year when everyone holes up at home. We evolved as social creatures, driven to seek other people to hang out with, so winter loneliness feels unnatural and sad to us.
But the fact is, winter cities rank very high on lists of the happiest places. A survey of the happiest and unhappiest cities in the US (which has a wider range of climates than most countries) conducted by Men’s Health magazine ranked 8 of the 9 happiest cities as ones that experience genuinely cold weather. Who ranked last? Balmy St. Petersburg, Florida—with Tampa, Miami, Las Vegas, Birmingham and Memphis all in the bottom ten.
And note that the Nordic countries generally dominate international rankings for happiness—especially Denmark. Denmark is notorious for miserable winter weather with icy rain accompanied by reliably gray skies. The sun doesn’t rise until mid-morning and the sky turns dark again by four. Yet, as I discovered on a visit to Copenhagen, Aarhus and Velje, city streets are alive with the sound of people having fun.
Creating Great Winter Cities
One step in creating great winter cities is recapturing the enthusiasm kids show this time of year. What child (of any age) doesn’t welcome a fresh snowfall? What’s more fun than skating, skiing, sledding, warming yourself up at bonfire, taking in an outdoor market or festival? Winter cities need a full roster of social activities from November to April to show they can be great places for everyone to live and play.
Darkness, as much as cold and snow, can limit people’s enjoyment of the outdoors during winter. Smart cities are responding by artistically stringing lights throughout business districts, creating an overall ambience of delight that makes us want to linger outside even when it is chilly. And the lights shine all winter, not just the holiday season. Scotland may be the leader in creative lighting today. In Edinburgh, attention is focused on key streets with creatively designed overhead lighting as part of a mesh roof for the street. Paris also creates the illusion of a winter wonderland by lighting trees, with pale blue lights creating a dramatic effect. “Every store in Paris tries to outdo the others with artistic lighting displays,” reports Project for Public Spaces vice president Ethan Kent.
Danish architect Jan Gehl, a worldwide authority on how to enliven cities by building great public spaces, points out that Copenhagen has extended its “nice weather” season by two months in the fall and in the spring by adding heaters, supplying blankets and cozying things up with candles for people who want to continue to sit outside in sidewalk cafes. Danish landscape architects are paying more attention to patterns of wind and sunshine, so people can comfortably stay outdoors in parks and squares. “Cultures and climates differ all over the world, but people are the same. They will gather in public if you give them a good place to do it,” notes Gehl.
More Cool Examples
- Berlin sets up bocce ball courts in the snow.
- Minneapolis sponsors a cross-country ski race through the heart of town and beginning this year, a winter bike race. St. Paul stages a torchlight parade complete with a precision drill team pushing snowblowers in formation as part of its winter carnival.
- In Ottawa, the canals become the focal point of civic life in the winter as folks strap on their blades for a chance to skate through a wintry landscape rather than just making circles around a rink or pond. In Winnipeg, you can skate for kilometers on local rivers. People even commute to work that way. Edmonton, Alberta, which recently sponsored an international Winter Cities conference, is planning a freezeway, which would let people skate 11 kilometres through town.
- Edmonton is pursuing ambitious plans to become a “world-leading winter city” including the world’s largest public snowfight, a municipal contest for the best frontyard winterscape and a series of festivals celebrating ice sculptures, cross-country skiing and light displays.
- Throughout Europe holiday markets make sure the city stays lively once the mercury drops. This tradition has now come to North America, with many of them continuing beyond the New Year. Minneapolis now has five winter markets going until spring.
- Winter carnivals are another great tradition to spice up the doldrums of late January or February. St. Paul too has been throwing a mid-winter bash for more than 100 years that resembles a frozen Mardi Gras.
- About every ten years, St. Paul builds an ice palace and the whole town turns out to celebrate. But Harbin, China does things on a bigger scale with massive castles and statues during January’s month-long International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival.
It’s tough for towns to thrive if people everywhere else think they’re frozen, lonesome tundras 3-5 months a year. The Millennials are the first generation that reports they will choose a good place over a good job. No one wants to move to a place where the streets are lifeless for a quarter of the year because everyone is hibernating indoors. Winter cities can keep their citizens happy and healthy by making themselves attractive and fun 52 weeks a year.
Jay Walljasper writes, speaks, edits and consults about creating stronger, more vital communities. He is author of The Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons. His website: JayWalljasper.com. This feature is adapted from a presentation at the Winter Cities Shake-Up conference in Edmonton in January. Part of it first appeared in an article for Project for Public Spaces.