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By Jay Walljasper
Plunging temperatures, gray skies and long nights don’t mean we need to hurry indoors until springtime. Many cities around the world now offer inspiring examples of how creative placemaking allows people to enjoy public spaces and lively community streets throughout the winter. From Copenhagen to Quebec City to New York, people are flocking to outdoor markets and festivals, engaging in public activities, and even gathering at sidewalk cafes during the coldest months of the year.
In an increasingly globalized economy, where businesses as well as workers have more say in where they locate, winter communities can no longer afford to appear lifeless for a quarter of the year. Many people now choose places to live on the basis of vital local culture, and civic leaders increasingly understand that making public places that are inviting all year, not just when it is warm and sunny, is essential for a dynamic, prosperous community. Successful visions for winter communities include showcasing numerous opportunities for public activity throughout the winter months (not just during the brief holiday season), focusing on local identity and character and, of course, providing an inviting, vibrant physical environment.
Learning from Vienna, Berlin, and Paris
Project for Public Spaces (PPS) President Fred Kent and Senior Vice President Kathy Madden came back from a tour of European Christmas markets in Vienna, Salzburg, Paris, and Munich last year amazed at all the public activity in chilly weather. “People were out walking, shopping, going to markets, eating from street vendors. The city hall squares were full of events,” Kent reports. “You did not want to go indoors at all because there was so much going on.”
Cynthia Nikitin, PPS vice president for civic centers and downtowns, found the same thing on a wintertime visit to Berlin. “It gets dark at 3:30. It’s snowing like crazy. But it’s no problem. People are playing bocce ball on the ice. There are tents selling hot mulled wine. You are walking down the street just watching all the other people. Life is good, and winter feels good, too.”
PPS’s experience with placemaking projects in European, Canadian and northern U.S. cities has shown that if people are given the chance to do something they enjoy doing, they will bundle up and go outside to do it, even when temperatures are below freezing.
“It’s like any other time of the year,” Nikitin adds. “If there are people out, other people will come out too to see what’s going on. But there has to be a reason to be outside—a market, ice skating, music, decorative lighting or just a good place to hang out when it’s cold. No one will stay outdoors to stare at an empty plaza.”
A frequent mistake made in winter cities is to overemphasize the impact of the weather, using it as a rationale for why they don’t have great public spaces. “When people in a city use the climate as an excuse for mediocrity—and that happens in hot places where we work, too, like Dubai and Tempe, Arizona—” says Nikitin, “then I know the problem is not weather but the need for a bigger vision in that place.”
This lack of vision—not freezing temperatures, cloudy skies, early sunsets or deep snow—is the biggest problem facing winter communities in North America. As Gil Peñalosa—a Colombian and former parks commissioner in Bogotá, who has happily adapted to life in Mississauga, Ontario, where he works as president of Walk and Bike For Life—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.”
Creating a Vision for Winter
The first step in creating great winter communities is recapturing the enthusiasm kids show this time of year. What child (of any age) doesn’t welcome a fresh snowfall or a new coating of ice to slide around on? Parks and plazas play a big role in fostering public activity 12 months a year, providing people with places to sled, cross-country ski, ice skate or just mingle. So long as winter weather is associated only with difficult driving conditions and potential frostbite, as happens with most TV weather reports, people in northern cities will continue to hole up in their homes or make plans for moving south.
Quebec City, famed for its winter carnival and street vendors selling hot bread, is a prime example of making winter into an asset. Same for the Canadian capital of Ottawa, where the Rideau Canal becomes 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. People even commute to work that way. Mississauga, the Toronto suburb where Peñalosa was Parks Director, doesn’t have a canal but they fashioned a long-distance skating course by flooding a walking trail.
New York stands out among American cities in celebrating the winter months. Rockefeller Center is famous for its ice rink, which becomes the beloved heart of Midtown Manhattan by attracting a handful of skaters and the crowds of onlookers who love to watch them glide back and forth. That’s an important lesson in winter recreation. The skaters or tobogganers are not the only ones served. There’s a multiplier effect, in which the hardy endeavors of a few draw other people to the scene, thus creating the critical mass for a bustling public place. Add a stand to buy hot chocolate or roasted chestnuts and things get even livelier. This idea of “triangulation” can create a major city center attraction even during the coldest months of the year. That’s the mission of Rockefeller Center, where music and other public events are programmed all winter long so that it becomes a spot to which New Yorkers and even out-of-towners naturally gravitate.
Less well-known nationally but equally important to locals are the winter goings-on at Bryant Park, right behind the New York Public Library on 42nd Street. This small mid-town park has increased winter activity by leaps and bounds with the addition of a holiday market and skating rink. The park’s café now stays open in the evening, and they even offer outdoor seating, which helps keep things lively after sundown. The Bryant Park Restoration Corporation emails people in the adjacent area periodically to let them know when the rink is open and encourage them to stop in at lunch or after work. This is important in building a winter constituency for the park, since most people don’t naturally think of going to the park in cold months. And like Rockefeller Center, Bryant Park offers events all through the winter. Too many cities shut off the lights and clear out the public spaces by January 2, when cold weather has just begun.
Winter Markets and Celebrations Are Hot
In cities like Vienna and Salzburg in Austria, Munich in Germany, and Strasbourg and Paris in France, there is much thought and planning devoted to make sure the city stays lively once the leaves fall and the mercury drops. Popular places like street markets don’t close, they just take on another form. Holiday-themed markets are found in many places for several weeks before the Christmas holiday.
This tradition has now come to North America. Union Square and Columbus Circle in New York now feature European-style markets, and others can be found in places as varied as Salt Lake City; New Orleans; Washington DC; Santa Fe; Eugene, Oregon; and Santa Monica, California.
Holiday markets can boost the spirit of any community in the colder season. “It’s coming on as a new kind of market,” says David O’Neil, PPS senior associate on public markets. “We’ve been pushing the idea of farmers markets extending the season beyond Thanksgiving, which is the traditional end of many seasonal markets.” It can start simple with the local market staying open for Christmas tree growers and inviting local artisans to exhibit their creations for holiday shoppers. Find a vendor to sell cappuccino, hot cider or even wassail, and another offering steaming cups of chili, sizzling sausages or toasty grilled cheese sandwiches. Bring in church and school choirs to sing carols, and maybe build a makeshift stage for bands or theatrical troupes. Sponsor a snowman, ice sculpture, or break-dancing-on-ice competition. And that’s just the beginning.
Winter carnivals are another great tradition to spice up the doldrums of late January or February. For more than a hundred years, St. Paul has been throwing a mid-winter bash that resembles a frozen Mardi Gras. There are torchlight parades complete with floats, a citywide treasure hunt, an internationally acclaimed ice sculpture exhibition, dogsled races, and, some years, a life-sized ice palace you can wander through. The whole event revolves around a fanciful battle pitting King Boreas, the reigning monarch of the winds, in alliance with Aurora, the Snow Queen, against the Rex Vulcanus, the God of Fire, and his followers who wear red suits and ride firetrucks around town. It’s ten days of good fun, which ends in Vulcanus’s triumph—a sign that spring is around the corner.
Dartmouth College and Quebec City are also famous for their midwinter fêtes, and could be an inspiration for your own community celebration of snow, ice and all things wintry. An event scheduled for March—a time in many regions where the snow has turned to slush but chilly temperatures and cabin fever endure—might be especially welcomed.
People’s newfound interest in enjoying public spaces twelve months a year is sparking a wave of admirable innovations. Landscape architects are paying more attention to patterns of wind and sunshine, so people can comfortably hang out outdoors in parks and squares. In some forward-looking cities, bike lanes and pedestrian walks are snow plowed before the streets. Restaurant owners have installed gas heaters, and provide blankets to keep customers coming to their sidewalk tables far longer than ever before. In Denmark, notes Copenhagen architect Jan Gehl, improvements like these have expanded the season of “good” weather from six to ten months.
Darkness, as much as cold and snow, can limit people’s enjoyment of the outdoors during winter. Smart communities are responding by artistically stringing lights throughout the community center and neighborhood business districts, creating an overall ambiance of delight and pleasure that makes us want to linger outside even when it is chilly. And the lights shine on all winter, not just the Christmas 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.
Escaping Winter Can Backfire for a Community
A common and tragic mistake that many North American winter communities have made in recent decades is to try and engineer winter out of existence. This is seen most prominently in second-story walkways (called “plus fifteens” in Calgary, “skywalks” in Winnipeg, “skyways” in Minneapolis and Des Moines, “pedways” in Chicago and Edmonton) that allow people to circulate around downtown areas without stepping outside. A good idea on paper, perhaps, but in practice, the life of the city is removed from the streets and eventually disappears.
After visiting Minneapolis, where there is an eight-mile system of second story passageways linked by skyways between buildings, architect Jan Gehl observes “When you glass in the city, you eliminate the bad days but also all the good days. That is too much of a price to pay. You miss the fresh air, the flowers. You may have 20 bad days a year when you want to stay indoors, but 200 good ones you miss.”
Six Lessons for Making Great Winter Communities
In the winter, when the environment offers more challenges, we need to think about public spaces and events differently. Great winter cities have learned some key lessons for success:
This article was reprinted with permission from Project for Public Spaces “Making Places Bulletin.” For more information on Project for Public Spaces, please visit
Jay Walljasper is a senior fellow at Project for Public Spaces (PPS); he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To find out how PPS can help your community make the most of winter, call Robin Lester at 212-620-5660 or email email@example.com.