Winter in the City – We Can Do Better

As November draws to a close, winter has descended on the Twin Cities with force. This means it’s time to hunker down, withdraw from the public realm and resign ourselves to scurrying between our home, car, parking garage and office – punctuated only by strolls through climate controlled malls and skyways.

It doesn’t have to be like this! It is high time that we revisit the way that we experience (and enjoy) winter in the City.

A Tradition of Enjoying the Cold Outdoors
“It gets cold there in the winter”; we are so often reminded by visitors, relatives, friends, and – most of all – fellow Minnesotans. Well yes, yes it does, and so what.

But we Minnesotans, whether by birth or by choice, have a long tradition of embracing the winter months. Whether it be skiing/snowboarding, ice fishing, snow shoeing, pond-hockey, building snowmen and forts, or sledding – we take in the season with joy and enthusiasm. We refuse to let the drop in temperature reduce our use and enjoyment of the outdoors.

If you look at that list of activities though, they are almost entirely “natural” in the sense that they must take place outside of the urban context. And while one can do many of these things within our urban core, that is mostly a consequence of the Twin Cities’ wonderful park system.


Snowboarding at Wirth Park, Minneapolis

There is an entire realm of urban winter experiences that the Twin Cities has only just touched. As more and more of life can be conducted online, people are increasingly reacting by seeking out unique in-person experiences and opportunities to be in community with others – no matter the weather.

The opportunity and desire is there, so what might an ideal winter city look like?

Winter in the City: An Opportunity for Magic
In my travels to vibrant cold weather cities, the most successful ones mix light and dark, heat and cold/ice, food and drink, activity and contemplation – all in close proximity. Certainly the German Kindelmarkets are some of the best examples.

In a recent visit to Bryant Park in NYC I found a holiday market, ice skating rink, a café, hot cocoa and waffle kiosks, music, and places to just sit and take it all in.

Ice rink, café, and tree, Bryant Park, NYC

What can we learn from place like these? Minnesota’s own Jay Walljasper, in an excellent piece for Project for Public Spaces, succinctly calls out some key lessons for creating great winter cities (full article here):

  • Activities should last a while – mirroring the duration of the season. They can be punctuated with larger events, but there should be something to do for a long period of time
  • Layer activities. Give people many different things to do in a given space, like combining an ice rink with food, shops, a winter market, art, performances, etc.
  • Leverage local specialties: food, crafts, the arts, parks, etc.
  • Specialty lighting can transform a space from average to magical
  • Management is essential. Without management of a city’s spaces, no winter activities would occur. Competent and ambitious management leads to great results.

What Can the Twin Cities Do?
The good news is that the Twin Cities are already on the right track, with the Holidazzle, St. Paul Winter Carnival and Winter Skate, the Loppet, and plethora of neighborhood ice rinks providing a great foundation.

Our downtowns would be natural homes for robust winter markets. Both are already home to successful summer farmer’s markets and have enough day-time population and evening activities to support similar efforts around the holidays. As for sites, Mears or Rice park in St. Paul and Peavey Plaza (eventually) in Minneapolis are obvious sites. The Depot on Washington Avenue could also work, under the old train shed. These markets could be combined with existing/future ice rink facilities, concerts, and mobile food operations.

On a smaller scale, neighborhood ice rinks and commercial nodes can also affordably implement a number of these strategies. In particular, simple specialty lighting, outdoor food options, and snow/ice centered activities would draw additional visitors and customers – strengthening social ties and boosting sales for local retailers.

A Final Reflection: On Fire

Rink-side campfire, Dufferin Grove Park, Toronto

There is one element that combines a number of the elements we like most in the cold months: light, warmth, movement, food – and that is fire. Just as humans are drawn to moving water on a very basic level, so too for fire. The difference being that we have all but eliminated fire from our urban landscape, save for a few innovative places, namely Providence, RI (http://waterfire.org/) and Dufferin Grove Park in Toronto (http://dufferinpark.ca/campfires/wiki/wiki.php).

Fires provide the light that draws us in, the warmth to keep us there, and the heat to maybe even make our own s’mores. As we think about how to enliven our urban spaces, especially at night and in the cold, let us keep this feature in the back of our minds.

A Final Final Note: Experience the Full Outdoor Winter Experience: Today
So what if you want to experience an outdoor winter craft market, linger around a camp fire, make your own s’mores, visit with Santa and listen to live music – but you don’t want to leave the city? Well you are in luck, because this Saturday you can do just that at:

Lyndale Gardens Winter Market and Festival of Lights
Saturday, December 1st 4:00-8:00pm
Lyndale Avenue and 64th Street – free onsite parking available
Full event details here

While I admit some bias as my firm was retained to plan the event, it will be a wonderful occasion to come together as a community, in the winter and celebrate what makes the Twin Cities special.

See you there!

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One Response to Winter in the City – We Can Do Better

  1. Jake Olson December 5, 2012 at 5:31 am #

    I'm so with you on this article. I was in Heidelberg last winter a week or two before Christmas and I couldn't believe how effectively they transform their public places into an amazing winter wonderland. I moved to Mora MN with hopes of one day creating something like that in my home down to build community spirit and an enjoyment of the Winter.

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