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Urban Design Can Make Winter More Bearable

Edmonton gets very cold, but it wants to lay out its city to make that cold at least a little more bearable.

Urban Design Can Make Winter More Bearable
[Photo: Steve Nagy/Getty Images]

Edmonton, the capital of Alberta, knows about cold weather, and it wants to do something about it. There’s not much that anyone can do to change the city’s average low temperature of 14˚F (the record low last year was -13˚F) but city officials want to make the cold easier to deal with by using urban planning.

There are many architectural decisions that make cold weather seem worse. Tall buildings whip icy winds around their feet, bridges freeze as soon as things get chilly, and putting a public space on the shady side of a building can render it useless for most of the year. The Edmonton city council hopes to push a new list of recommendations into law to force developers to design for the weather, and to make the city easier to live in when temperatures drop below freezing.

The new winter design guidelines require developers to add balconies, trees, and podiums to any plans for tall buildings. It also recommends raised crosswalks to keep pedestrians (including those in wheelchairs) out of the snow, and south-facing seating in spots hidden from the wind.

These plans can make a big difference to people’s everyday lives. Edmonton defines “outdoor-comfort days” as the days of the year between when the temperature rises above 48˚F in the spring until it dips below 52˚F in fall. There are currently about 150 of those a year. But the city’s design could make the city feel warmer: By catching the sun, blocking wind, and reducing the shadows cast by tall buildings, the city thinks the number of these outdoor-comfort days could be increased by 30%. This means that “people can be outside in comfort up to four weeks earlier in spring and three to four weeks later in fall,” say the official guidelines. Other plans include electrifying the concrete in bridges to stop them from freezing, and push-button heating at popular transit stops.

One thing that Edmonton does have is sunshine. It counts itself as the second-sunniest city in Canada with “an average of 325 sun-filled days a year, with 121 of them falling between November and March.” And the recommendations take advantage of that. For instance, deciduous trees are used to let more light reach into windows during short winter days, while evergreens are used to block wind.

“Careful microclimactic planning is critical to counteract people’s tendency to hibernate. We should not have to struggle against climate,” says the report. “Instead, we must form alliances with it.”

Many of the guidelines would make the city better in summer, too. Extra wide “boulevard” sidewalks are perfect for banking snow in winter, but offer space for pavement cafes, or just walking, when the weather thaws. And wind-reducing trees on those sidewalks provide shade in summer.

The plans are very well thought out, but won’t mean much unless developers can be forced to follow them. That requires political wrangling, but the city council has champions like Councillor Ben Henderson, who is also a big supporter of cycling and other forward-thinking plans. And these are the kinds of rules that, although developers don’t like the extra work involved in implementing them, make a city more attractive to live and work in, and eventually bring economic growth. Not that money should always be the measure of success, but it makes a great weapon to shut the conservatives up.

About the author

Previously found writing at Wired.com, Cult of Mac and Straight No filter.

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