The case for building winter cities in Ontario

As cities across the province battle rising COVID-19 numbers and lockdowns, experts are making a case for more winter-friendly and pandemic-safe activities to see us through the holidays
By Diane Peters - Published on Dec 16, 2020
This winter, Ontario residents want to be outside. (iStock/Marc Dufresne)

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Our chilly province hasn’t always embraced winter. Southern Ontario cities and towns have favoured indoor pathways and amenities while being lax about snow removal and ignoring parks after the first snowfall. This winter, though, Ontario residents, already sick of being shut in, want to cooperate with the cold.

With the pandemic still raging, Ontario cities need distant but social outdoor activities that are fun no matter the weather — or the COVID-19 restrictions in their regions.

“Last summer, we found ways to find more space for people,” says Patrick Liberté, director of Ontario urban lands and greenbelt at the National Capital Commission (NCC), which oversees federal lands in the Ottawa-Gatineau area. “People are expecting us to come back with something for winter.”

Torontonians can try their hand at disc golf, which entails tossing discs into elevated metal baskets. It follows rules similar to golf. It’s both pandemic-safe and winter-friendly. Can it be played in the snow? “Why not, it’s above the ground,” says Howie Dayton, director of community recreation for the city of Toronto. “Bring snow boots and you can play a game.”

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A new nine-hole course was added at Scarlett Woods Golf Course in November, bringing the number public disc golf courses in the city to six, and joining dozens across the province.

Troy Glover, professor of leisure studies at the University of Waterloo, recalls hanging out, having drinks, and skating at The Forks, a riverside outdoor space in Winnipeg, at -35° and realizing he’d simply avoid being outside if he was at home in such weather.

“There’s no reason why we can’t be doing these kinds of things in Ontario,” he says. “We need to get people outside in winter, whether there’s a pandemic or not.”

Across Ontario, free and physically distant outdoor sports are becoming more popular. Businesses are getting creative with outdoor lights. People are grooming more winter trails. And the idea of winter city design has come back into fashion.

For decades, we’ve known how to design for year-round living. The Winter City Book: A Survival Guide for the Frost Belt, by William Rogers and Jeanne Hanson, which came out of Minneapolis in 1980, sets out the general principles of what’s now known as winter city design.

The ideas in the book were soon refined to see urban planners and architects creating outdoor spaces that take advantage of the winter sun, shelter from the wind, allow for snow removal, and integrate heating sources such as fire pits.

This was all a reaction to what was going on in urban design at the time. “There was a big effort in the 1970s to push people indoors,” says Patrick Coleman, an urban planner who is founder and CEO of the Winter Cities Institute. (Coleman runs a planning company in Hancock, Michigan, across Lake Superior from Thunder Bay, which means he “lives farther north than most Canadians.”) Hence the underground malls, enclosed walkways and the like that dot our cities.

And while winter city design got attention in the 1980s, Coleman admits its popularity has waxed and waned over time. Many northern European cities design for winter and exercising outside and eating on patios all year is common. Over the last decade, it’s been gaining interest in Western Canada, with Edmonton creating a winter city strategy in 2012.

“This is old stuff, but it’s more relevant today than ever. We need to get back to our roots and get outside in winter,” says Coleman, who’s been fielding more inquiries than ever about winter design over the last several months.

He admits Ontario doesn’t win at winter. He recalls one visit to Ottawa — in theory one of our most wintry cities thanks to skating on the Rideau Canal and activities such as the Winterlude festival. “When I had to walk from my hotel to the CBC, it was terrible walking conditions,” he says.

Rebuilding a city’s buildings and streetscapes for all seasons takes decades, but regions can quickly make small changes in the short term.

Coleman says it starts with safety and accessibility, and that means clearing snow from pathways, keeping bathrooms open, and adding lighting. Business improvement areas (BIAs) in Toronto lead on this, with the likes of Bloor-Yorkville showcasing an outdoor light tunnel, decorating trees with lights and, this year, adding 60 “urban campfire benches.”

Glover says attractions like food trucks, hot chocolate stands, and good seating draw people to outdoor spaces. “We’re all attracted to visual assurances of sociality. If we know things are going on, we want to be part of it,” he says.

Encouraging physical activity outside can be simple too. “We’ve been looking at ways to let people explore the city in ways they’ve never done before,” says Dayton.

Toronto has also carved out eight news trails for walking and snowshoeing on five of its golf courses and is leaving tennis nets up on city courts, doing winter maintenance in more parks, and opening more washrooms. (Dayton admits many park paths aren’t wide enough for easy clearance, and freezing pipes in non-winterized bathrooms make these tasks tough.)

Despite being in lockdown, the city opened its skating rinks on November 28. In the first five days alone, it saw 32,000 online reservations for ice time.

The NCC, which oversees the Ottawa-Gatineau area, has expanded winter parking near its parks and trails, worked with community groups to clear more trails in the region, and launched an online, interactive map to help people find winter trails.

Getting outside in winter has benefits beyond the physical and mental. A prophetic August 2019 report by Toronto’s Economics and Community Development Committee makes a case for more cultural activities in winter to get residents outside and attract tourist dollars.

Coleman says cities who make winter fun benefit their economies in bigger ways. “Our culture says that cold is bad and warm is good,” he says. In order to draw top talent, northern cities need to push back against this idea.

“It’s not that hard,” he says. “These things don’t have to be expensive.” Toronto’s recreation department has invested roughly $300,000 in winter projects this year. The NCC says it expects to up its winter budget by just $34,000.

In time, Ontario’s cities may invest more in proper winter design, as well as initiatives and events that get people outside. Indeed, while the pandemic may be nearly over by next winter, people may still put on their skates and snowshoes and expect to have somewhere to use them.

“What we know is that when we deliver something, even if it’s a pilot, it’s very hard to pull out of the project after that,” says Liberté. “Once people have fun outside, they expect that service to be there again the next year.”

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