What is a winter city’s placemaking strategy?

The ‘coolest’ winter cities equate snow, ice and cold to outdoor recreation, festivals and tourism dollars, turning what some might consider a ‘bad hand’ into a ‘full-house’ on which to double-down.

Winter cities are considered to be communities where the average January temperature is 32 degrees Fahrenheit or colder. If you grew up in a winter city or live in one now, you are certainly familiar with the saying that the seasons consist of nine months of winter and three months of bad sledding. While this is an exaggeration for all but the most northern winter cities, it does imply a very important placemaking lesson: a community should leverage the characteristics that make it unique. In the case of winter cities, snow is an asset and so it should be celebrated and promoted.

Jay Walljasper, senior fellow at Project for Public Spaces writes in The Review, “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”. In other words, if you live in a winter city, it is critical to make winter part of your community’s placemaking strategy.

The City of Edmonton in Alberta, Canada does this well with its Winter City Strategy, drafted by the City’s own Winter City Think Tank made up of citizens representing urban design, business, tourism, and quality of life interests. The strategy includes ten Winter City Strategy Goals to make Edmonton a “World-Leading Winter City”, which is the subtitle of the strategy. The goals are broken into four categories: Winter Life, Winter Design, Winter Economy and Our Winter Story. Overall, the Winter City Strategy is intended to not only find ways to ‘live with’ winter, but also to imagine new ways to celebrate and promote winter by focusing on the uniqueness of Edmonton, its history and its sense of place.

The City of Houghton, Mich. leverages its winter city status well too. Houghton boasts a Winter City Plan as the basis for its own winter city strategy. The plan considers the usual land use, transportation, walkability and public space considerations, but through a winter city lens of snow, wind and cold. An excerpt from the plan reads:

“The Winter Cities philosophy recommends that planners, designers and policy-makers encourage and promote application of climatological know-how in land-use and design concepts, while keeping abreast of newly evolving technology. Builders should be provided with incentives to demonstrate advantages of climate-adapted projects on particular sites. Local governments should embrace climatically-sensitive plans and zoning ordinances together with the inclusion of climate-driven performance specifications. Finally, approvals for buildings and site plans should be subjected to a rigorous review of how well designs and proposals are adapted to the local conditions (rain, ice, snowfall, wind, etc.) in conformity with explicitly stated ‘winter livability’ criteria.”

The cities of Edmonton and Houghton take the approach of embracing winter by making the city more livable year-round and reinforcing the winter city sense of place. According to N. Pressman in a presentation from Welcoming Winter: Changing the Climate of Planning, they know that the key to enjoying winter is to have thermal comfort, a visually stimulating environment, and plenty of recreation and leisure activities. The overall goal of such strategies is to retain residents and attract new ones. Considering this goal in light of the six stages of winter enjoyment – enduring, tolerating, accepting, respecting, appreciating and celebrating – leading winter cities will likely have more residents over time that respect, appreciate and celebrate winter, an outcome that only serves to reinforce the winter city sense of place.

This article is a companion article with the Michigan State University Extension article Form-based codes and winter cities make for a hot combination. For more information about planning, design and promotion of winter cities visit the Winter Cities Institute. For more information about leveraging regional assets to create a unique sense of place, visit the MiPlace website or contact an MSU Extension educator at our Land Use Education Services webpage.

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