“That might work in Minneapolis, but you know we have winter here, right?” someone once objected. I think we were talking about bike commuting, but we could have been discussing any number of quality of life or placemaking ideas. That Minneapolis’ winter temperatures are colder than Sault Sainte Marie’s mattered not to this critic—rather, we’ve convinced ourselves so thoroughly that Michigan’s winters are an impossible obstacle that we sometimes don’t even stop to think about how other winter places manage.

We’ve been talking winter cities for a while, and many of our communities have long traditions with winter recreation, but as with so many other things the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing us to hurry up and adapt our behavior and our communities in new ways to weather this storm.

Powerpoint cover image

Watch our recorded webinar with the Michigan Main Streets team, or download the slides.

You may have heard the Swedish idea, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes,” and you’re probably familiar with the classic American* saying about the postal service, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night…” Either way, a combination of preparation and attitude can make winter just another season for our communities, rather than a unique liability hindering Michigan’s prosperity.

The attitude is up to you, but various resources are available to help your community identify appropriate preparations.

The Michigan Main Street Program has created a Winter Strategies guide for downtowns and business districts, focusing both on physical design of places and the marketing and events that can help keep businesses afloat through the winter months. MMS staff have a recorded webinar about the guide, and the League hosted a webinar conversation with them in mid-November.

The guide contains a set of principles that can be used to add winter-time activities and attractions to your community while mitigating the downsides. Many of these are quick and easy—like using straw bales to create windbreaks near outdoor activities. (While fully enclosed tents or bubbles can work at other times, COVID-19 makes those poor choices this year—creating areas that are open to sun and air but sheltered from strong winds can go a long way to making spaces more pleasant.)

Lighting, material choices, heat sources, and wind breaks can open air spaces comfortable through much of the winter.

Longer term, while we may beat the pandemic, winter will remain with us, and updating our policies and investments can keep making our communities healthier and happier year after year. For example, getting back to that bike commuting question, enabling biking and walking to be year-round transportation options will require new approaches to snow management. Holland’s sidewalk snowmelt system may be an option for places that have a power plant pushing out waste heat, but for other communities this might mean investing in equipment that can plow the sidewalks and bike lanes.

The Michigan Main Streets guide draws on local and international experiences in “winter cities,” and we’ve previously highlighted some of our members’ approaches in The Review. As with other hurry-up adaptations COVID-19 has forced on us, this is an area where all of our members can learn from each other’s creative approaches, and where we can build a better set of options for future winters: share your successes with us.

* Today I learned this phrase is not original to the United States, but is apparently a 2,500-year-old phrase from the Greek historian Herodotus, referring to the couriers of the Persian Empire. Neat!