CityFixer

How Edmonton Made Winter Great Again

This very northern city found love in a freezing place.

Image Edmonton Economic Development Corporation/Flickr
Edmonton Economic Development Corporation/Flickr

In Edmonton, Alberta, it snows 52 days out of the year. On winter nights, the temperature often dips down to about 5° Fahrenheit.

Once, this was something that the residents of the Canadian city preferred to ignore. When the massive West Edmonton Mall—one of the largest in the world—opened its doors in 1981, it created, as the urban planner Simon O’Byrne puts it, “a big bunker for the winter.”

“That was 1970s, 1980s thinking,” he tells CityLab. “It was all about minimizing the distance from the car to the indoors; nobody wanted to be outside in the winter.”

Edmonton officials decided that was a problem.

In 2010, Ben Henderson, an Edmonton city councilor, met with a small group ​of community leaders to gauge interest in a project he’d been turning over in his head: a plan to radically reshape Edmonton’s relationship to its cold, cold winter climate.

The group was into it. By the next year, a handful of Community Services Department members had formed the WinterCity project team and established a think tank—made up of Edmontonians with expertise in urban design, business, marketing, and tourism—and tasked them with developing goals for the WinterCity Strategy.

“Too many places—even in the far north—plan as though there are only three seasons in the year,” says O’Byrne, who co-chairs the think tank with Henderson.

For a city like Edmonton, whose population numbers over one million, ignoring a quarter of the year is not a sustainable strategy—either economically or socially. With residents reluctant to venture outdoors in the cold winter months, retail and service businesses were faltering, and the lack of social interaction, O’Byrne says, opened the door to a host of mental health issues, most notably seasonal affective disorder, which affects up to 15 percent of the Canadian population, disproportionately those living in more northern climates.

“So we just thought: ‘How can we program the hell out of winter?’” O’Byrne says.

The team looked to other northern cities for inspiration. Henderson led a taskforce to Norway and Finland in 2011 to identify how, exactly, Scandinavian cities have come to terms with their most freezing months. Though they came away with smart ideas to crib, they also realized that, in order to become a true winter city, Edmonton would have go from resenting its winter to embracing it—and it would have to do it in a way that was authentic to Edmonton.

By 2012, the team was collaborating with local businesses, transit and tourism agencies, and residents. Through crowdsourcing campaigns, the team asked Edmontonians: “What would make you fall back in love with winter in Edmonton?”

“We got all kinds of weird, wacky ideas, and some that were really very useful,” WinterCity project coordination Susan Holdsworth tells CityLab. “The whole strategy we developed is based on what we heard.”

The strategy cuts across all aspects of the city, from infrastructure to economy to social life. Notable plans include creating more opportunities for ice skating and winter sports, constructing heated bus stops, patios, and storefronts, and establishing snow-based transit routes—like cross-country ski paths—through the city.

What’s astonishing, Holdsworth says, is how quickly the strategy—now in the third year of its predicted decade-long implementation—has taken hold in the city. This year, the City of Edmonton will revise its zoning laws to support winter design principles, including a recommendation that all future structures be built so as to minimize prevailing winds and downdrafts while maximizing exposure to sunlight.

More than that, it’s the attitude. “Winter conjures up these very nostalgic images—think Joni Mitchell skating on a river," O'Byrne says. “It captures the whole essence of Canadian romanticism, which people actually love."

Edmonton's winters have benefited from what O’Byrne describes as a wide-ranging focus on hometown pride and going local. “Edmonton’s not going to out- New-York New York, it’s not going to beat out Southern California for weather, but what we can be is a great mid-size city in North America that reacts really well to its environment.”

Nowhere is this potential more evident than in Edmonton's winter festivals—both old and new. The Silver Skate Festival will celebrate its 26th anniversary in 2016 with a veritable winter extravaganza in Edmtonton’s Hawrelak Park, which this year also plays host to the city’s first-ever ice castle. Newer festivals include the Flying Canoe Volant—a boat race recalling French, First Nations, and Metis traditions and a popular folk tale—and a massive snowball fight. (Proposed in the crowdsourcing campaign, the largest snowball fight in Edmonton’s history drew thousands of participants in 2014; turnout for 2015 was even higher.)

And the Edmonton Freezeway, a 400-meter skate path through Victoria Park that opened in December, originated as Edmonton native Matt Gibbs's master’s thesis in landscape architecture at the University of British Columbia. It’s in the pilot phase, but if enthusiasm remains strong, the installation could eventually extend up to 3.5 kilometers and serve as a new winter transit route.

Even beyond the upswing in citywide programming, the movement toward winter positivity has trickled down into the daily lives of Edmonton residents.

Holdsworth says that the city has seen a dramatic uptick in winter bike commuters; every Friday morning, a group of them gather in Etzio Farone park to make coffee in outdoor camping pots and chat.

Up until a few years ago, Erin Elizabeth Ross, a visual artist born and raised in Edmonton, would drive to work. One day, she decided to walk, and has been taking the outdoor route ever since.

“It got me thinking,” she says of the programming. “It’s winter here a long time, and I like being outside during all the other seasons. If I’m going to live here, I’m going force myself to be outside in the cold.”

Which isn’t so bad, Ross says. In fact, the winter has become something for the city to boast about.

“Edmontonians,” Ross says, “are actually kind of badass.”

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