Last week, Edmonton held a kickoff event for its Winter City Strategy. This has been in the works for a couple of years, with representatives conducting research, and visiting Scandinavian cities, amongst other activities.
I’m not a big fan of cold weather (-15 is my threshold – which may beg the question of why I live here, but I digress). However, to build a great city, you need to take advantage of your strengths. And Edmonton’s winter can be a strength, and a selling point to many people (residents and visitors alike). With that in mind, here are some preliminary thoughts on winter, Edmonton, and what a successful winter strategy might include. Some of these thoughts are my own, and some stem from conversations with fellow Edmontonians in recent days:
Winter doesn’t slow some Edmontonians down.
Recognize and Celebrate That There’s a Lot Going on Already.
Edmonton is hardly wanting for winter/outdoor activities. Festivals such as Deep Freeze, Ice on Whyte, and Silver Skate all have following, and in some cases, established histories. The Birkebeiner is a popular event in the Cross-Country Skiing community. I’m sure I’m missing other established, popular events.
In addition to that, the River Valley hosts miles of cross-country ski trails, and most communities have amenities such as tobogganing hills and outdoor skating rinks (you can also skate at public places like the Legislature, City Hall, and Hawrelak Park).
What may be true is that Edmonton is missing a big, signature, universal winter event. Whether that’s desirable or not is debatable. Maybe we should celebrate that our winter schedule offers a number of events that, while individually may each have a niche, cumulatively offer a lot to different people.
Winter Light: Build it as a Unifier and Hub for Winter Events
Launched in 2009, Winter Light coordinates a series of existing winter activities, and served to launch a handful more to flesh out Edmonton’s schedule from January to March. One of the promising things I see in Winter Light is the ability to be the hub for winter activities, perhaps even an umbrella group for the festivals and activities that happen through the winter month. Instead of a new, big, universal event, maybe the Winter Light banner (and all the activities that happen from January to March) can serve that purpose.
Metropolis: Don’t Throw the Baby Out with the Bathwater
Just launched this year, Metropolis provides programming in heated tents found in Churchill Square over 6 weekends in January and February. It’s come under scrutiny, some of which is to be expected as a new event works out the kinks, and some of it well-founded. While there are ways to improve it, a (perceived) unsuccessful event may spur wholesale changes, or a cancellation of the event entirely.
I see a lot of potential, but would suggest the following changes based on my visits, and feedback from others:
1. Improve on-site signage and branding. There aren’t any banners (unless they’ve gone up in the last week or so) in Churchill Square explaining what event is happening, or what it is. The mere presence of white tents isn’t going to entice people to stop by.
2. Scale back the number of tents, and increase the outdoor activities. I see an opportunity to have outdoor features and activities connecting the space between tents. Like much of our downtown, the Metropolis activities seem to be inward-facing.
3. Focus on a couple of things, perhaps just the community tent and a beer garden/restaurant. To increase return visits, perhaps invite a different chef/restaurant to run the restaurant each weekend, like how a different group programs the community tent every time.
Avoid the Temptation of the Magic Bullet
Edmonton has often been susceptible to thinking that a single, major project can turn everything around (the latest being a downtown hockey arena). Certainly, someone will suggest a major event or activity (which will no doubt cost a ton of money) as the answer to Edmonton’s winter blues. When this happens, it’s probably best to run like hell.
Ask Ourselves, ‘What’s Missing?’
Honest question: when thinking about what programming/activities may be missing as we develop a winter strategy, the first and simplest question should be “what would I like to be able to do in Edmonton during winter that I can’t right now?” Everything else should follow from that.
Be Creative with What are Current ‘Dead Spaces’ in Winter
In particular, I’m thinking of park space and athletic fields. A couple of examples I’ve seen recently – Cleveland is finding ways to program its ballpark in the winter months; Harvard constructs a bubble dome over its football field, allowing many of its varsity sports teams to practice year-round. If that’s feasible for a handful of Edmonton fields, I (and many others, I suspect) would pay fistfuls of money to play soccer on a proper pitch year-round.
Encourage Design that Better Reflects our Reality as a Winter City
This is true for both exterior and interior building design. In his book Reflections of a Siamese Twin, John Ralston Saul describes Canada’s refusal to build for and accomodate winter as “a curious form of self-denial”. He compares public facilities (such as theatres) in Scandinavia, where you find massive coat and boot storage spaces, to those in our country, which are largely non-existent. Small touches like this will better accomodate people’s needs during the winter months.
Embrace the Idea of ‘A More Livable Winter’
A strategy should consider initiatives that encourage a better quality of life throughout the winter months. Better care of sidewalks and trails, heaters in public locations, and other amenities that will encourage more outdoor activity on cold days are better (and much cheaper) bets than investing a lot in 1-2 major projects. We should focus first and foremost on ensuring the day-to-day aspects of experiencing winter are as enjoyable as possible.
Support a Change in Mindset
You can’t legislate or program your way into being a great city. Instead of rejecting or fighting against winter, citizens (myself included) need to embrace the best aspects of winter, and celebrate it.
Market, Market, Market
As I noted at the beginning, there’s a lot going on already. Perhaps the focus needs to be first on selling what’s already here, and doing it aggressively. There’s no reason Edmonton can’t become one of Canada’s premier destinations for winter-inclined tourists in a hurry. It’s just a matter of enhancing, and selling what we’ve already got.