Cities excel in balmy weather. Summer is the season of desultory bike rides, of food truck festivals and concerts in the park, of long walks and dinners on the patio at the cafe. Then the temperature plummets, those delightful urban artifacts are buried under soul-crushing mounds of snow, and you and your seasonal affective disorder start wondering why you don’t live in Arizona.
For cities in America’s Snow Belt, the fallout of harsh winters can be severe. While more than 2.2 million people moved to Sun Belt states between 2014 and 2015—bright, warm places like Texas, California, and Florida—only a tenth of that number moved to the Midwest and Northeast. For those who already live there, the annual onslaught of subzero temps often spurs a desire to flee…or at least burrow for months.
But a contingent of hardy souls wants to change the way North America’s coldest cities experience winter, and they’re looking to a part of the world renowned for both happiness and monster winters: Scandinavia. In fact, the Danish concept of hygge may hold the key to cities’ winter well being.
“Coziness” is perhaps the word’s best translation, although togetherness, enjoyment, relaxation, and comfort capture angles of it too. Meik Wiking, the CEO of Denmark’s Happiness Research Institute and the author of The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well, sums it up this way: “The true essence of hygge is the pursuit of everyday happiness.”
Copenhagen is clearly ground zero for hygge. Through a magical alchemy of urban design, business development, and cultural conviction, residents revel in simple pleasures, particularly when the weather turns foul. In Copenhagen, you defy the cold. You meet friends for breakfast at Grød, Copenhagen’s porridge-only café, for fortification both physical and spiritual. You wander the city’s light-studded cobblestone streets. You show up for one of the 500 concerts that are part of Vinterjazz, a nationwide jazz festival held each February. A love of hygge ensures that Danes find ways to enjoy a city that sees just seven hours of daylight in midwinter.
Copenhagen came to mind when Joe Burgum, the founder and head community builder of the placemaking consultancy Folkways, in Fargo, North Dakota, asked himself, “Who’s really happy in the cold?” “Obviously,” he says, “Scandinavia was at the top of the list.” In 2014, Burgum and his partner, Simone Wai, embarked on a self-financed fact-finding mission to the region. They returned to Fargo with winter-altering ideas.
Meanwhile, Edmonton, in Alberta, Canada, crafted a first-of-its-kind WinterCity Strategy by asking residents, “What would make you fall in love with winter?” The resulting design and placemaking guidelines, focused on creating a high quality of life in the winter, unintentionally capture elements of hygge, too.
These four ideals of hygge provide a starting point for changing winter in the city from a Spartan endurance race to an extended season of joy.
Hygge principle: Warmth. Unlike some American cities, where snow seems like a shocker year after year, Scandinavian cities acknowledge and build for their cold climate, with higher energy standards for walls and doors, vestibules that prevent drafts, coat racks for winter gear, and public plazas that block wind and capitalize on southern sun. Then there’s the ritual of the sauna.
After their trip to Copenhagen, Joe Burgum and Simone Wai came home to Fargo and built their own sauna from a kit ordered from Northern Lights Cedar Barrels. Now that it’s been built—180 work hours and $13,000 later—the sauna exemplifies hygge as a bastion of coziness and connection. “It became incredibly social for us,” Burgum says. “We had a friend that said, ‘It made winter feel shorter last year.” Because it’s built on a trailer, Burgum hopes to park the mobile sauna at community events as well, making it into a placemaking tool like Bloomington, Minnesota’s Little Box Sauna.
Creating similar experiences in snowbound cities might require reviving the tradition of public or private bathhouses in North America (though a few cities, including Seattle, already have one). More simply, warming houses can become urban waystations for both physical heat and social contact. In Winnipeg, the Manitoba Association of Architects sponsors an annual competition to design warming huts; winners are built along a local ice skating trail. A similar competition in Toronto invites artists to convert lifeguard towers along the beachfront into wacky winter stations. In Edmonton, restaurant patios have been known to stay open year-round, thanks to heat lamps, wood-burning fireplaces, and microwave-warmed seat cushions.
Hygge principle: Light and color. With far fewer hours of sunlight, wintertime contentment relies on literal or metaphorical brightness—hence the typical Danish scenes of candle-bedecked dinner tables and windows laced with twinkle lights, or Copenhagen’s streets with their famous Crayola-colored buildings.
The urban version? Outdoor lighting. On city streets, creative lighting design creates visual interest, adding a sense of comfort and coziness that encourages urban exploration. Installations or festivals like those in Richmond, Portland, and Pittsburgh illuminate the most tedious part of the season.
As with most things winter, Canada has an edge here. In Montreal, an annual festival called Luminotherapie introduced LED-light-enhanced seesaws at a playground; as the seesaw tilted up and down, the board’s glow intensified, then faded. In February 2017, Calgary’s downtown district will launch its inaugural three-day winter light festival, called GLOW. Among the extensive lineup of light-centric installation art is an interactive shower that rains light from all directions, while a loop of summer sounds—wind, birds, an ice cream shop—plays gently in the background. After 90 seconds, you emerge from your light shower refreshed and—in hygge fashion—joyful.
Hygge principle: Access to nature. While hygge’s overarching style seems to be an indoorsy, “cocoa by the fire” feel, Pia Edberg, author of The Cozy Life: Rediscover the Joy of the Simple Things Through the Danish Concept of Hygge, points out that experiencing nature is elemental to hygge. “As the old saying goes: ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.’”
In cold-weather cities, easy access to the outdoors staves off lethargy and activates spaces. “The sad truth is that the Danish winter is long and dark, and we really need incentive to get outside,” says Wiking. “In my neighborhood in Copenhagen, one of the greatest attractions in the wintertime is the ice skating rink, which is packed with kids of all ages and has beautiful lights to create a very hyggelig atmosphere.”
Boston recently installed an undulating ice skating trail at City Hall Plaza. In Edmonton, a group of citizens is working to install ski racks at light-rail stations so residents can cross-country ski part of their winter commute. And while some cities have taken to banning sledding on municipal property out of fear of liability, others, like St. Paul, Minnesota, and Madison, Wisconsin, map sledding hills on their city websites.
Hygge principle: Gathering places. Perhaps the most important antidote to winter’s isolation is hygge’s emphasis on communal gathering and social connection. In Copenhagen, privately owned third places—restaurants, bars, cafes, bookstores—are as central to the wintery social life as public squares are in the summertime.
But must outdoor public spaces effectively shut down in the cold months? Hyggelig cities give residents a reason to emerge from the blankets. As part of its WinterCity goals, Edmonton sponsors a full slate of winter festivals and activities, including Silver Skate, with its ice castles and fire sculptures, and Flying Canoe Volant, whose main event is a wild downhill canoe race. Fargo launched Frostival last year, with outdoor tournaments for volleyball, softball, kickball, and golf. The event tagline: “Making Cold Cool.”
There’s a new level of collaboration among cold cities, as well. In early 2017, Edmonton will host Winter Cities Shakeup, a conference for leaders and placemakers from snowy cities to compare notes.
“It’s a whole emphasis on everyday life,” says Susan Holdsworth, Edmonton’s WinterCity coordinator. “We know festivals are great, but we want to make sure the everyday life experience in winter is also great. It’s not just great once you get to Silver Skate or Flying Canoe. It’s great when you’re on your way to work or at your lunch hour.”