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People ice skate along an ice path which is near a building with structural columns. Courtesy of The Bentway Conservancy

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Why U.S. cities should stop whining and embrace winter

Baby, stop whining that it’s cold outside

Architect Peter Hargraves would like to level with you: We are not getting rid of winter.

“I personally love winter; when the Quebec carnival happens, it can be negative 30 and they don’t even seem to think about the cold,” he says. “Back in Winnipeg, everyone is bitching about winter. I thought, ‘There are 800,000 people here. Winter isn’t going away. Why don’t we do something to engage the place we are at?’”

In 2009, Hargraves and his firm Sputnik Architecture proposed a design competition for warming huts on the frozen Red and Assiniboine rivers. Every year since, a range of architects and students have answered the call, using a variety of materials, from wood to snow and ice; this year’s winners will be unveiled on Friday, January 25. The new huts will join 25 of their predecessors on the ice, creating a miles-long skate trail that gives people a destination for exercise, sociability, and aesthetic contemplation.

Among the starry entries: sculptor Anish Kapoor’s womb of stacked, carved ice blocks. Frank Gehry’s deconstructed igloo of ice and wood. The most Pinnable? Sail-like structures of plywood by Vancouver-based Patkau Architects, built in 2011, which made their way to the courtyard of the V&A in London, as well as the front of a catalog accompanying an exhibition on the material.

“A lot of people make the joke that none of the warming huts are warm,” Hargraves says. “We have the technical ability to build shelters that are warm, but if we did that, the way human beings work, we would skate to first warm shelter, hop inside, cool down, stop exercising, and then have to climb outside and be cold again.” That’s what houses are for. “The purpose is to get you skating. If you are skating, you are warm.”

To get people energized to leave those houses in the first place, you need something more than a hut-shaped hut: You need an ice palace, you need a cave, you need the spirit of carnival. You need to make art of winter.

A person ice skates out of a red curtain onto a snowy and icy terrain. The area behind the red curtain is illuminated.
Warming huts, 2017.
Courtesy of The Forks
A large wall of ice blocks with an arched entryway.
Warming huts, 2017.
Courtesy of The Forks

I know what you are thinking: Isn’t the globe warming? But climate change doesn’t move in only one, predictable direction. Northern cities may get warmer, but they are also subject to more dramatic weather shifts. The average January high temperature in Edmonton is 21 F, in Quebec City, 18 F, in Winnipeg, 12 F. Each makes New York look positively balmy, and yet our city seems to do much less to combat the gray skies than Canada does to add grace to months of ice and snow. We need to take a lesson from our northern neighbors.

Initiatives like Winnipeg’s warming huts show how extremes push creativity, and treat winter as a design problem to be solved rather than a circumstance from which retreat is the only solution.

Maybe the winter huts aren’t so different from the parka, also necessary for outdoor comfort, but maligned for making one look like a sausage roll, sleeping bag, or beach ball. In October 2018, Valentino creative director Pierpaolo Piccoli debuted a series of parkas with skiwear company Moncler, as if in response to the question, “What if the parka became a ballgown?” The resulting coats gave dressing for the weather drama and shape. They made you long to wear them and made it seem necessary, indeed fashionable, to go outside. Winter is not the problem, it’s the way we are looking at it.

Hygge, the winter trend of the past few cold seasons, emphasized staying in, lighting candles, and treating yourself. But it also comes with unintended consequences: What happens to the public realm when everyone’s rushing to get back home? Is it so wonderful to be alone inside if there’s nowhere else to congregate?

On January 24, 8 80 Cities, a nonprofit founded by cities consultant Gil Penalosa, announced the inaugural cities for its Wintermission program: Leadville, Colorado; Eau Claire, Wisconsin; and Buffalo, New York. The program, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Global Ideas Fund at CAF America, is intended to combat winter isolation with public-space design and programming that emphasize socialization and exercise.

The three cities (chosen from 62 that applied) were chosen to model possibilities for small, medium, and large urban areas. Elected officials and municipal departments there will do community outreach in the coming months, and then roll out new initiatives—anything from festivals to fire pits, snow clearing or fat-tire bike trails—in winter 2019-2020.

The initial call for ideas focused on the psychological component of hunkering down. “Winter is often a time when people experience social isolation, when there are challenges related to accessibility and access to outdoors,” says Ryan O’Connor, director of programs for 8 80 Cities. “We know a great deal about living in a winter city,” but older people, recent immigrants, and youth may not have the knowledge, skills, or finances to embrace the season.

The 8 80 team looked to Scandinavia, of course, but also closer to home. “When we bring people to Copenhagen on study tours, we try to demystify any kind of Danish exceptionalism,” O’Connor says. “We were inspired by the work of Edmonton. They are really leading the way in North American cities planning for winter.”

When I started reporting on winter, I wondered how long it would take before someone quoted a certain Nordic saying to me. Perhaps you’ve heard it: There is no bad weather, only bad clothing.

It didn’t take long. “If you are not dressed properly for the weather, you can’t enjoy being outside,” says Susan Holdsworth, WinterCity coordinator for Edmonton. One of the first links I noticed when I went to the WinterCity website was one on how to dress for the cold.

“This isn’t just an urban-planning thing,” Holdsworth told me. “People are afraid to dress properly, afraid they are going to look like a big marshmallow. We try to encourage local fashion designers to design warm and fashionable winter clothing. I love footwear personally. I look forward to wearing winter boots. I have got red ones, purple ones.”

Perhaps I need to confess here that I own three different parkas: short (for ice skating), Marimekko (for style), and long (for when it is in the single digits, as it was on January 21). I also spend a fair amount of time thinking about thick, 100-percent wool sweaters. So I think I qualify as a winter stan.

Edmonton’s initiatives go far beyond proper footwear, of course. In 2013, City Councilor Ben Henderson, who has a background in the arts, decided to take on winter as his signature initiative. “He knew that we needed to do more than focus on winter events and festivals,” says Holdsworth. “We needed to improve the quality of life in general.”

So in addition to flying canoe races, skating trails through natural scenery, all-season outdoor patios, and a potential plan for heated bus stops, the city published Winter Design Guidelines in 2016. The five key elements all sound simple (at least until you find yourself on a windswept plaza): blocking wind; capturing sunshine; use of lighting; color; and finally, winter infrastructure—practicalities like keeping sidewalks and transit stops clear.

People ice skate on an ice rink at night. There is a building with a glass pyramidal shaped entryway in the background. The building and ice rink are illuminated by colorful lights.
A WinterCity Edmonton outdoor activity.
Courtesy of City of Edmonton

Though Holdsworth says architecture in Edmonton tends toward the beige, pockets of color in neighborhoods or public space have been shown to change one’s perception of the temperature. I recently experienced this myself, courtesy of some modern masters of color. When I toured the Rochester Institute of Technology’s late modernist 1960s campus in November, the sharp angles began to seem a little grim. Grim, that is, until I stepped into the lobby of the administration building by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates, where twin Josef Albers murals, based on his Homage to the Square, beamed sunshine at me without any actual change in the weather.

Some northern cities have enough winter for their rivers to freeze and snow to be used as a building material. Dartmouth’s Winter Carnival, which dates back to 1911, features snow sculptures on the Green, and has included castles, dragons, and Dr. Seuss characters (Theodor Geisel was an alum). Bryce Clayton, an architecture graduate from the University of Waterloo, just won a medal at Canada’s National Urban Design awards for a project that suggested Edmonton use its snow to shape protected outdoor spaces, rather than carting it off like trash. “Daily winter life can be embraced rather than avoided when pausing to drink a coffee in an ice lounge, waiting for the bus shielded by a slab of snow, or sitting in a sun-bathed nook,” he wrote in his award submission.

In a similar fashion, the Canadian Centre for Architecture, in Montreal, is asking kids for help with the question, “Where should the snow go?”

Since children might see possibilities that adults don’t, we need their help. In this program, we’ll develop new possibilities for what to do with all the snow that is collected over the winter. Instead of a problem, what if it was a seasonal opportunity to build?

But the southern cities of the north also need to strategize for gray days. For them, a better focus than snow playgrounds is the art of the microclimate, using wind breaks, plantings, even highway overpasses to husband warmth.

When the Bentway opened in Toronto last January, it transformed 10 acres of underused ground under the Gardiner Expressway into a public park designed by local landscape architecture firm Public Work. Most parks don’t open in the dead of winter, but one of the Bentway’s selling points was its figure-eight ice-skating trail.

“At the opening weekend for the Bentway last January, it was minus 35 [degrees] Celsius, and 30,000 people came out,” says Marc Ryan, principal and co-founder of Public Work. “You were transported in this action of skating in this new place, and you completely forgot where you were.”

Back to the Bentway: Under-the-highway architecture helps make it feel like a destination, Ryan says, as the roadway becomes a roof, and the site is protected by a slope from northeasterly winds. “We turned the columns and roof into rigging, so that you could program the lights for skating, but also allowed space for artists to hang things and do installations.”

A person ice skates on an ice rink. There is a wall with murals on the side of the rink.
The Bentway.
Courtesy of The Bentway Conservancy
People iceskating along the Bentway in Washington D.C. The ice rink is under a building with structural support columns.
The Bentway.
Courtesy of The Bentway Conservancy

Warming areas in former shipping containers, outdoor fire pits, blankets, and hot cider help people forget about the cold, as do materials like Canadian soapstone, which retains heat. Public Work is using the stone to build benches that will be warmed year-round by the building’s ventilation exhaust.

Having the skating be a loop, rather than a rink, was also part of the plan, connecting Toronto, a southern Canadian city (which has an average January high temperature of 31 F thanks to its position on Lake Ontario), with natural skating features in colder places like Montreal (22 F) and Edmonton (21 F). In Ottawa, the Rideau Canal Skateway runs for almost five naturally frozen miles from the capital to Dows Lake. “My dream for Toronto is that we could have something similar: a skating trail you could actually commute on,” Ryan says.

Bringing some of the excitement of natural trails into the urban recreational environment is definitely part of a trend. In Chicago’s Maggie Daley Park, a “Skating Ribbon” designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates is described as feeling “alpine in the city.” In Breckenridge, Colorado, skiers, snowshoers, and (hearty) runners and walkers can commute via a groomed eight-mile path. And in Minneapolis, the Midtown Greenway is plowed all winter long so that bikers can continue to use the 5.5-mile trail to commute. At the 740-acre Theodore Wirth Regional Park, there’s a snowboard terrain park, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, sledding, and tubing, as well as a new pilot project for fat-tire biking on weekend evenings.

Public Work is also on the design team for Quayside, Sidewalk Toronto’s controversial “smart neighborhood.” From the beginning, the cheerful renderings included awnings and heated paths labeled “winter mitigation.” Ryan couldn’t offer specifics, but spoke generally about using vegetation to buffer wind, and clusters of trees to create gathering places, employing nature—not data—to create better climate control.

Toronto Globe and Mail critic Alex Bozikovic reported in Architect magazine that “local architecture firm Partisans and engineering firm RWDI are working on a series of freestanding shelter structures and “raincoats” for the buildings—adjustable soft surfaces that make the extremes of wind and rain more tolerable.”

New York (average January high: 39 F) may not get winters as cold as our Canadian neighbors, but we could still do more with what we have. The LeFrak Center at Lakeside in Prospect Park offers a taste of outdoor skating in an elegant frame: The building design by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, well-integrated into the park landscape, puts half the rink space under a protective roof, painted a rich cobalt blue, and the other half outdoors within shouting distance of the lake. In summer the outdoor section becomes a splash pad, while the covered rink converts to roller skating. The cafe serves excellent hot chocolate and grilled cheese, though outside heat lamps and blankets would triple the space to sit and linger.

“In Norway, over the last decade, there has been a shift from people only being inside in the winter in urban areas to using sidewalks more,” says Snøhetta’s Craig Dykers, whose firm has offices in both Oslo and New York. “New laws regarding cigarette smoke meant people went outside and smoked; there were more people outside and nothing to protect them, so bars were challenged by having no creature comforts.”

Slowly, the watering holes added awnings, chairs, blankets, and heaters, which made their smoking zones so popular that non-smokers wanted to sit outside, too. Sidewalk culture became year-round culture. In the plans for the redesign of the plaza behind Philip Johnson’s AT&T Building, currently under review by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, there’s a small C-shaped area labeled “hearth,” something I hadn’t seen in a POPS before. Dykers envisions the bench being heated, possibly by recycling exhaust air, and his team is looking into getting a variance for a gas fire pit. “If not that, then having a light that gives the idea of warmth.”

Recent skating opportunities seem to offer smaller and smaller rinks with more and more branding, like the heart-shaped Winterland Rink on top of SHoP’s new Pier 17 at South Street Seaport. Exercise or engagement photo backdrop, I wondered? As with the Instagram museums, giving people something to do, not just a different place to pose, is essential.

If Toronto can have a skate trail under an elevated highway, and Chicago can have one in a waterfront park, why can’t we? Or, better yet, a skate-able circumference, allowing you to make your way past views of the Statue of Liberty, Lower Manhattan, and Staten Island on ice, stopping in for a cocoa at warming huts à la Winnipeg.

The 2006 Request for Qualifications for the master plan for Governors Island does make mention of a “warming hut” for cooler weather on the promenade around the island. A number of the responses included a rendering of the island in winter dress. WRT and Urban Strategies’s 2007 submission showed kids in parkas and snowtubing in a blizzard. James Corner Field Operations and Wilkinson Eyre’s “Mollusk” concept included geothermally heated baths facing the statue, plus a global weather institute that was obviously ahead of its time.

I asked Governors Island how winter factored in to their current plans to develop the open parcels on the south end of the island set aside in West 8’s winning design. The only detail they could share entailed public interior connectors between future buildings as part of the proposed rezoning. This seems practical—northern cities are layered with skyways and underpasses—though it tends to be at the detriment of outdoor conviviality.

Governors Island isn’t the only park under construction that seems ripe with chilly possibility. Freshkills Park on Staten Island has the real estate for some grand winter gestures. Users of Brooklyn Bridge Park dream of a rink under the bridge, and in snowier winters, Pier 1’s hills have attracted sledders, but the park has no winter-specific initiatives underway. We’ve grown inured to park renderings featuring people in kayaks — could “ice-skating-family” become the new go-to scalie?

The high school students at the New York Harbor School take the ferry out to the island rain, shine, or snow: Maybe they should be posing for an outerwear feature. I’d like to hear their voices on the best parts of the island after the public leaves. The way to make New York and other U.S. cities winter ready is to plan for the season through a combination of smart design, appealing programming, and a little bit of drama. Fire! Color! Adventure! Public space and outdoor recreation can put on the equivalent of a stylish parka and have their moment in the spotlight.

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