Winter Cities: Enduring or embracing our climate?

Ever since I moved from the tropics of Singapore to upstate New York, I have found myself having a much greater appreciation for the temporality of our daily weather. May it be taking advantage of a cooler than usual August day to explore a local gorge, or hiking on a sunny 32F Saturday in January after a week of subfreezing temperatures. I realize my appreciation of each of these days is all relative compared to the weather in the weeks surrounding them.

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A picnic area in upstate New York closed for the winter

While so much of my interest in cities deals with people gathering or enjoying time outdoors, in public space, I realize that often this is examined by planners in a vacuum, without regard for the local climatic conditions. Weather however is often the first barrier to using a space cited by the everyday user, from rain keeping us from the beach in Florida, to humidity deterring us from exploring Singapore by walking, to subzero temperatures keeping us indoors in Ithaca. In September 2012 I had to opportunity to speak alongside Jan Gehl at a conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  At one point I remember my neighboring colleagues from Malaysia asking Mr Gehl if he honestly expected people in the tropics to utilize biking, pedestrian and other outdoor infrastructure in Malaysia and Singapore’s heat and humidity as compared to the climate in Denmark.  He responded with photos of Dans biking through snow with an umbrella and people enjoying an outdoor cafe in winter, wrapped in blankets.  His response simply was why can’t people enjoy their city in any weather?

Copenhagen cyclist with umbrella

A Copenhagen cyclist with umbrella in snow

To me it comes down to a simple idea, particularly as I am experiencing winter anew after living in Singapore for a few years and growing up in Florida.  Are we simply enduring our cities’ climate or are we embracing it?  This concept is one which planners and designers should keep at the forefront of their minds as they work to design cities for people, may they be in hot humid environments, or in cold northern cities.

Over the next few posts I want to further explore this idea of cities embracing winter through a variety of planned and unplanned methods. As my last piece on winter festivals showed, cities are already working to encourage people to gather outdoors even in the cold.  Later this week a group of planners, designers and city leaders will also gather in Edmonton, Canada for an international conference on “shaking up preconceptions about how we plan, design, work and play in winter cities.”

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A child in Montreal enjoying public art in the snow

As much of New York City is closed today from a snow storm I am also reminded that winter storms do pose real threats to our safety and transportation in cities. Therefore planning and design measures to deal with such storms is a top priority for urban leaders.  However we should not let such storms cloud our feelings about the entire season, nor should as we urbanist only look at utilitarian aspects of urban design in winter. Perhaps we need to remember the childlike excitement of a season’s first snow, or for us that grew up in warmer climates, the excitement we had even as teenagers or adults the first time really noticed the beauty of a snowflake.  A recent article on Ithaca’s historic relationship with winter even posed the question was winter more “exciting and dramatic” years ago, or were their just more winter embracers before? As the city of Edmonton so aptly states in their WinterCity Strategy Implementation Plan 2013, “It’s time to reclaim the joy of winter” in our cities.  Over the next few months of winter in the northern hemisphere, I hope you can also reclaim this joy of winter in your city.

The first and third photos were taken by the author, the second photo is linked to its original source.

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