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By Patrick J. Coleman, AICP

Following the recent decades of exodus by northern city residents to the Sunbelt, winter communities must become more livable and competitive than their southern counterparts to find their place in today’s global marketplace. Unfortunately, the winter season is often dreaded in the North American culture due to perceived discomfort, inconvenience, and a potential increase in costs. Northern communities need solutions to common winter problems, such as pedestrian and bicycle conditions in winter, appropriate street/roadway/walkway design, parks and recreation (how to better utilize existing parks for winter recreation), and snow management. The Winter Cities Institute was organized in 2008 to help winter communities identify, promote, and share the positive attributes of winter living; to promote new concepts in architecture and urban design; and to share success stories from places that are thriving in the north.

A multi-use urban trail in Anchorage, Alaska accommodates skiers, walkers, and bikers. Photo by Patrick Coleman

“Winter cities” is a concept that includes cities and villages and townships, and even crossroads—so long as the goal is to address the problems of snow and cold while enhancing the advantages, opportunities, and beauty of the winter season.  A positive approach benefits the attitudes of residents, and bolsters the community’s ability to attract new business and residents. “Winter communities” must overcome the negatives of the season in order to best handle the demands of the weather and to fully utilize the winter season as an important community asset.

Positive Aspects of Winter

  • Outdoor recreational opportunities, including downhill and cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, ice fishing, snow shoeing, ice skating, and hockey

  • Natural beauty

  • Winter tourism, special events, and festivals

  • Using ice and snow for civic art

  • Opportunities for innovation and improvement in services, building, and product design

Negative Aspects of Winter

  • Snow management costs

  • Health care costs associated with accidents, both auto-related and pedestrian

  • Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and psychological depression related to a lack of sunlight

  • Difficult mobility, particularly for seniors and the disabled, either as pedestrians or in automobiles

  • Limited outdoor activity for many persons

  • Increased heating costs and energy consumption

  • A visually monotonous environment dominated by white and gray

Fortunately, not all Michigan residents have bad winter attitudes. A 2004 community survey in the city of Marquette found that 80 percent of residents viewed the winter season as a positive attribute. The survey also found that negative perceptions were related to mobility and shoveling snow. By applying creative planning approaches to solving winter-related issues, Michigan’s cities can embrace the winter season, mitigate discomfort and inconvenience, and become more sustainable. This positive approach will improve the attitudes of residents, and bolster the community’s image.

Recommendations & Winter Design Guidelines

Appropriate design for winter communities should not be an afterthought. It really is all about small details and considerations brought to the forefront of the planning process.

Site Design—Utilize solar radiation and a site’s southern exposure in the orientation of buildings, parks, and outdoor spaces to maximize the penetration of heat and sunlight. Use buildings to protect outdoor spaces from prevailing winter winds while avoiding building orientations that will create a wind tunneling effect.

Building Design—Building surfaces should reduce wind speed by incorporating balconies, stepped façades, or irregularities into the building’s exterior. Cover ramps or stairs to protect them from snow and ice and provide handrails for all public and private walkways that exist on slopes.

Design roofs to account for snow and ice accumulation and to prevent snow and ice from shedding onto parking areas or pedestrian walkways. Transition areas at building entrances provide patrons with an area to shed snow prior to entering the building.

Road Design—Snow removal must be balanced with aesthetics and pedestrian comfort in the design of road improvements. Design road cross-sections to provide an area for snow storage adjacent to the road to prevent snow from being plowed onto the sidewalks when roads are cleared.

The Marquette Commons, a town square designed for all-season use. Photo by Greg Borzick

Parks and Recreation—Can Michigan’s communities really afford to build and refurbish parks that are only used part of the year? Consider ways to use parks and open spaces in all seasons. Ponds, lakes, and open areas can be used for ice skating. Use an existing hillside or make one to create a snowboard and ski terrain park. Flood a walkway and make a skating pathway. Snow can be packed and groomed on existing pedestrian trails for multi-uses such as walking, biking, and cross-country skiing.

Pedestrian Circulation—Designate critical pedestrian areas that should receive priority when clearing walkways and ensure that transition areas such as corner pedestrian ramp curb cuts and bus stop platforms are properly cleared to ensure pedestrian safety. Design crosswalks to be slightly raised in order to prevent water and ice from accumulating, potentially posing a hazard to pedestrians. Separate sidewalks and other pedestrian pathways from the roadway. This separation protects pedestrians from the spray of slush and water from passing cars.

Landscaping and Vegetation—Plant deciduous trees on the southern face of a building or outdoor area to provide shade in the summer, while still allowing sunlight to filter in during the winter. Conifers should be used on the north and west sides to protect the area from prevailing winter winds. Berms and vegetation can be used to direct snow drifts away from building entrances.

Select appropriate landscaping for snow storage areas and plant living snow fences to protect walkways and roadways from prevailing winter winds, and to create “outdoor rooms” for all-season comfort from prevailing winds. Some plant, shrub and tree species offer attractive or useful winter-appropriate characteristics such as twig color, fruit, or salt-tolerance.

Materials and Aesthetics—Lead the way in your community by designing municipal facilities to function and look good in all seasons. Consider color and lighting treatments when designing buildings and landscapes to offset the darkness and monotony of the winter season.

Use technology and materials appropriate for a winter community, such as outdoor furniture constructed from wood, polyethylene, or vinyl-coated metal. The use of color, public art, and seasonal light displays will create winter interest and offset the often gray and drab winter landscape.

Addressing winter issues and incorporating these ideas into your community’s planning framework is not difficult. Begin by conducting a “winter community audit,” evaluating winter issues and opportunities, identifying what is currently being done and what citizens would like to see. Doing this will lead to an enhanced year-round livability, a better quality of life in wintertime, and reinforce the idea of a Michigan “winter culture.” It will also increase opportunities to attract business, economic development, and new residents. And finally, it will improve citizens’ attitudes about winter and generate pride in the community.

Patrick J. Coleman, AICP, is the senior planner with USKH, Inc., a multi-disciplinary design firm based in Anchorage, Alaska. He lived and worked for many years in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He is also the CEO of the Winter Cities Institute, a web-based resource and information sharing network found at



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