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Danielle Paradis explores what makes Edmonton a great city.

What will it take to make YEG a winter wonderland?

Edmonton sets course to warm its streets with better urban design.

Some of the design principles that will be examined as Edmonton aims to be a warmer winter city.

Screenshot/City of Edmonton

Some of the design principles that will be examined as Edmonton aims to be a warmer winter city.

Winter has arrived and the sudden icy blasts have many Edmontonians — like myself — scurrying inside to wait out the weather. These days, when you look outside, our downtown and its empty, snowy streets, looks post-apocalyptic. 

Is this to be expected when the temperatures hit -30C in Edmonton?

Maybe it doesn't have to be. 

A proposal from the a group of winter city thinkers working in city administration regarding winter design policy before city council Tuesday suggests there’s ways to thaw the core — with better urban design. 

Ian O’Donnell, the new executive director of the Downtown Business Association, appreciates the thought the winter cities design strategy has put into a plan for climate-appropriate design in the city. He says we need to consider the city’s climate when planning. “Oftentimes we design just to design, but context is important,” he says. 

Downtown Edmonton is generally walkable, but both winter and ongoing construction projects make being a pedestrian dreary (think of the new Fox Towers, which the city allowed to set up rental space in the middle of the road on 104th Street, cutting off access to a sidewalk and requiring pedestrians to zig-zag).

When considering a comprehensive strategy for urban design in a winter city, there needs to be a balance between policies and creative freedom, he says. “You don’t want to be too prescriptive, and you want to allow some flexibility for individual owners and designers.” 

That sounds great, but I can’t help but think that previous projects, like the Freezeway and the city falling out with designer Matt Gibbs, will affect the way that citizens, community groups and developers will want to engage with the new ideas.

At the moment, we are stuck with the legacy of the past in Edmonton. That means buildings designed without much thought for humans on the streets around them. Consider how so many of our streets have “long blank walls [that] create wind tunnels,” O’Donnell says. 

The current Land Use bylaws allow the city to consider the effect of wind created by some tall buildings, but there aren’t firm guidelines on what should be accepted. 

When wind hits a tall building, it can wash downward and swirl towards the sidewalk, making life as a winter pedestrian worse. Since Edmonton has now removed the height restrictions on buildings, after the closure of City Centre airport, we’re going to need a comprehensive strategy that keeps the ground level in mind. 

O’Donnell says there are examples of places that already work. “There’s a space by the CBC [at City Centre Mall] that is heated to help shelter people, but isn’t necessarily indoors,” he says.   

Previous initiatives for the winter city planning group have focused on outdoor beauty, but the new policy recommendations are focused on creating warmth, colour and sunlight exposure. 

While the proposal seems very practical, there doesn’t have to be function over form. With good urban design, O’Donnell says, “you can really create beautiful areas that help make pedestrians feel wanted.” 

I’d guess that many pedestrians in downtown Edmonton would welcome city strategies that consider them. Let’s hope city council is enthusiastic about creating winter city guidelines that lure us off our couch or out of our cars during the long winter months.

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