In the cold, cold country of Canada, Edmonton is among the coldest, with winter temperatures cresting at about 21 degrees, and darkness spreading long over the hours of the day. It is, as Edmonton City Councilor Ben Henderson told Bloomberg News last year, no wonder the residents had a hard time enjoying the season and connecting with each other.
“You got up in the morning and it was probably dark, you connected to your vehicle without going outside, you went to the pedway and ate lunch without going outdoors,” Henderson said. “We were never getting direct sunlight or fresh air and then we wondered why we became depressed.”
“We were never getting direct sunlight or fresh air and then we wondered why we became depressed,” Henderson said.
So in 2013, Henderson led an effort in Edmonton to embrace winter with city-run winter-friendly programming, clear advice to residents about gearing up for and enjoying the cold, and a marketing campaign to change attitudes to the season. They dubbed the work the “Winter City Strategy,” touted on a website devoted to the effort thusly:
We are Edmontonians. We live in a Winter City, and we love it!
Remember the old days? When it was fashionable to grumble about the cold? When we started the winter season by wondering aloud how soon it would end? Well, Edmonton isn’t like that anymore.
Edmontonians are carrying their passion for their city year-round. We are bundling up in not only toques and mittens but excitement and adventure. We are embracing the long nights, the winds, the snows and the cold as new companions instead of old enemies.
The somewhat breathless marketing campaign was bolstered by three different “toolkits.” The Be Active Toolkit includes tips on how to dress for the cold; activities to do at home and around the city; and safety tips. Be Social includes guides to Winter Fests in various neighborhoods; park activities, including bonfires; links to city staff and departments that can help with permits for large gatherings and provide other info; and even recipes for warm weather treats. Be Creative offers tips on how to make a home or garden more winter-friendly, and to various neighborhood programs that have provided better lighting, warmth and other wintery upgrades.
By four years later, as Bloomberg noted, the strategy had started to work: “By 2017, 44 percent of respondents to a WinterCity survey said their perception of winter in Edmonton had become more positive.” Fast forward three years, and Edmonton was poised better than most to weather its first Covid winter, and now, possibly, its second.
Following Edmonton’s lead
Edmonton is (thankfully) colder than Philadelphia, especially these days. But like our Canadian cousins before us, Philadelphians outside of Mummers Parades and Eagles games are also not inclined to joyfully embrace even our relative cold. And given the latest coronavirus outbreak, social isolation may again be part of our winter.
That is not good for us. According to an AARP study, two-thirds of adult Americans of all ages last fall suffered from social isolation and high levels of anxiety because of the pandemic. Even in non-Covid times, researchers say loneliness affects 20 percent of adults worldwide; a Harvard University study last year found that 36 percent of Americans—including 61 percent of young adults and 51 percent of mothers with young children—feel “serious loneliness.”
Meanwhile, studies show that being isolated leads to higher risk of heart disease, dementia and death. Loneliness can be as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and also is linked to higher rates of suicide. We are suffering from a nationwide mental health crisis, exacerbated by isolation; and we are suffering from a nationwide crisis of democracy, exacerbated by not talking to each other.
Other cities have begun taking note of Edmonton’s example. In 2018, 8 80 Cities—an urban revitalization nonprofit—launched Wintermission, a call for American cities to develop programs that “combat social isolation and increase levels of physical activity in winter for all residents, no matter their age, ability, socio-economic, or ethnocultural backgrounds.”
8 80 Cities released its own version of a Winter City Toolkit, which includes resources to help North American communities adapt programs to their own needs. Its Winter Life Survey and Pop-up Engagement guides, for example, offer ways to seek input from residents about their needs and desires for surviving and thriving in the cold. A Best Practices to Public Fire Pit Policies guide presents case studies from several U.S. and Canadian cities, as does a Best Practices to Snow Management Policies guide.
We are suffering from a nationwide mental health crisis, exacerbated by isolation; and we are suffering from a nationwide crisis of democracy, exacerbated by not talking to each other.
And with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, it offered funding for cities to launch their own cold weather programming. Of the 62 cities that applied, three were awarded grants for two years: Buffalo, New York; Eau Claire, Wisconsin; and Leadville, Colorado. All three cities surveyed residents, and then launched winter programs that addressed their needs and wants. In all cases, that included making streets and sidewalks more navigable for every resident, in every neighborhood, and helping people stay warm in their homes.
But they also included more ways to have fun outside in the winter. In Eau Claire, for example, the city dedicated a 4-mile winter walking route through downtown; better signage pointing residents to winter activities; a winter gear share program at various city parks; and a media campaign that, like Edmonton, worked to change how residents viewed their long cold season. In Leadville, the country’s highest city, they planned to adopt a public fire pit policy; winterize public bathrooms; create outdoor warming shelters in parks and other public places; and develop a kit to help people throw neighborhood parties outside.
In Philly, granted, we have too little snow to create a storybook winter wonderland the way they can in Buffalo, Eau Claire and Leadville. But the higher temperatures also mean we have all the more reason to be outside. We have taken some steps in this direction: Streateries are (hopefully) here to stay in most parts of the city. Both Dilworth Park and Blue Cross River Rink, offer ice skating and other winter activities. Parks and Recreation has a (very slight) guide to winter fun in Philly, with links to five local skating rinks, hiking trails and popular sledding spots. We at The Citizen also keep track of fun things to do in Philly throughout the week and weekends.
But we could do more. Here are some ideas.
Create a Winter City Toolkit for all residents: Edmonton’s multi-pronged attack on winter blues is a one-stop shop for everything you need to survive in the city, from the general (what to wear), to the specific (what each neighborhood has to offer), to the practical (how to keep a sidewalk clear of snow). Creating that involved a combination of expert knowledge and resident input.
In Philly, as in many cities, the needs will vary by neighborhood and demographic; reaching out to residents will highlight the resources available, and also point to the need that exists in many places. The 8 80 Wintermission cities, for example, learned that new residents need extra help adapting to winter in their homes and outside of it, that older residents often feel more trapped in their houses and that underserved neighborhoods often have fewer recreation opportunities. They are now developing programs and processes to accommodate those needs.
Adapt parks for winter fun: Through the City’s Rebuild efforts, neighborhood Friends of groups and efforts like Connor Barwin’s Make The World Better foundation, city parks around the city are being upgraded with the input of residents. Mostly, though, the focus is on outside summer activities, and indoor programming as it is available during the winter—which greatly varies by neighborhood. Why not create all-weather parks, bringing winter fun to where people live?
In Buffalo, the city is launching a program that allows sponsors to “adopt a park” in winter for maintenance and activities. Imagine fire pits where neighbors could gather to roast marshmallows in February; warming huts where adults could hang out for hours while (well-insulated) kids ran around together; pop-up markets and food carts with hot chocolate and warm cider.
Help everyone enjoy the outdoors. Donate to clothing drives so every Philadelphian has the cold weather clothes they need to bundle up in the outdoors. (As the Scandinavians are said to espouse: There is no bad weather, just bad clothing.) Call on City Council to make their streateries policy citywide, rather than the piecemeal system in place now that favors higher-income neighborhoods. Tell the Mayor to institute citywide street cleaning already, so residents don’t have to walk over or past trash as they spend time with each other outside. Organize volunteer block snow sweeping crews like they do in Buffalo, to help neighbors keep their sidewalks clear.
Consider the winter in urban design: In 2016, Edmonton released a set of Winter Design Guidelines, a set of principles aimed at changing the urban landscape so that it is more welcoming in cold and inclement weather. It has five strategies: blocking the wind; maximizing sun exposure; using color to liven up the area; creating “visual interest with light”’; and designing winter-friendly infrastructure like protected bus kiosks and clearer sidewalks. The hope, as one of one of the planners, Nola Kilmartin, explained on the Winter City website is “to improve pedestrian comfort and experience. If we want to promote an active and vibrant winter city, people need to feel comfortable and safe and engaged—we need an environment that’s not hostile to them.”
Take advantage of our assets. In Eau Claire, wayfinding signs pointing to winter activities drew more people to the various ways to enjoy the cold that the city already had in place. Similarly, signs in Philly could direct more people to the roller rinks, to winter-friendly hiking trails in the Wissahickon, to wintry views along the rivers. Like Buffalo’s plan, Philly could tap artists to build warming huts around the city. As in Chicago, communities could tap into our robust music scene by paying musicians for public performances in parks around town. Neighborhoods could combine Mural Arts walking tours with outdoor food and small business fairs. We take such joy from touring holiday lights in various neighborhoods around town; let’s keep it going all winter, with different neighborhoods lighting up each month, and a published schedule to bring in visitors. That would also be a way to introduce Philadelphians to the local businesses, restaurants and culture of different communities in the city.
Encourage block parties all year round: Philly is a city of block parties, all summer long, all over town. Come winter, though, we shut down, often losing contact with those neighbors we mainly see around the BBQ. There’s no need for that, as Eau Claire has determined with its plan to unveil a winter block party toolkit. The process for getting permits and permissions to throw a neighborhood party are the same year round, as are some of the best practices. (See David Murrell’s instructive guide in Philly Mag from last summer.) Just replace the grill with some fire pits, the beer with some hot cider and the shorts with parkas and hats.
Header photo by J. Fusco for Visit Philly