© 2022

Winterizing: How U.S. Cities Can Warm Up Human-Environment Relationships



Winters are tough in northern U.S. cities. Strolls down snowy streets are only romantic in movies, where the streets are perfectly plowed and everyone ice skates regularly. This winter, there seems to be slightly more recreation happening (relatively) outdoors. As the pandemic continues and temperatures drop, spaces normally reserved for cars or bikes have been converted into outdoor dining in many restaurants’ desperate attempts to stay afloat. Ranging from familiar standup heaters to elaborate plastic domes, these structures are not just indicative of the economic strain that businesses and individuals are facing as a result of the lack of government stimulus. They also reveal that these cities have been built to resist rather than embrace the climate, and that the people who inhabit them are mostly unfamiliar with socializing outside after November.

American street life historically leaves much to be desired. The lack of mixed-used planning, or the coexistence of different types of structures (i.e. cultural, business, and residential units) in one space, combined with poor public transit makes going from work to play to home a rigmarole. In some cities like Minneapolis, looking up will reveal an attempt to make walking from place to place on foot more tolerable. Minneapolis, where winter temperatures hover around 10C/30F, is home to the largest contiguous system of enclosed elevated bridges in the entire world, called the skyways. What happens to life on the street when people are given the option to walk warmly above it?

While unique to the U.S., Minneapolis’ skyway system gives a glimpse into popular ideas about cities from the 1960s, when major planning and policy overhauls were taking hold nationwide. The skyways were built to accommodate commuters who would park their cars on the outer limits of downtown and walk to their workplaces. Former Minneapolis city planner commented to the Star Tribune that the skyways sought to “turn the city inside out” by creating new public spaces indoors. Sidewalks count as public space, and in most cities, whether or not they are cleared of snow is up to the property owner. This creates a dangerous and icy patchwork for pedestrians. So while most northern cities do not boast such obvious attempts at bypassing the elements, American cities ritualistically turn “inside out” during the winter.

Bringing people indoors, where the smell of Starbucks wafts through the air and salespeople wait at every corner, creates a disconnect between humans and their environment. Green space is known to boost people’s overall wellbeing, yet U.S. cities continue to favor grassy lawns over lush and enduring trees. The nation is currently experiencing widespread urban deforestation, and the lack of properly placed trees contributes to a culture of enclosure. In order to encourage people to come outside, the urban landscape must become a place that meets human needs for greenery, warmth, and sunlight.

Trees do an excellent job of shielding people from the wind, which is the main culprit of the bone chilling cold that drives us indoors. Canadian and northern European cities know this well. In Edmonton, evergreens are planted along walkways to shield pedestrians from the cold, while the empty branches of deciduous trees let the sun shine through. This measure was part of comprehensive “Winter City Guidelines” put in place in 2016 to create more comfortable conditions for residents during the coldest months. Many of these strategies were inspired by Scandinavian cities, which provide conviviality all year round through creative design. Raised crosswalks, widened sidewalks, and improved cycling infrastructure further helped residents move comfortably through their city. Bringing people outdoors mostly involves working in cooperation with the elements rather than dotting the landscape with new structures.

But if you build it, will they come?

If American metropolitan residents were to notice changes to their environments, would their cultural and social habits change, too? Working in an office in Center City Philadelphia, I would typically eat my lunch and people watch in LOVE Park from April to early October. In the summer months, the Parks Department hires people to lend out games, different food trucks visit daily, and children splash in the fountain. Once autumn begins to fade into winter, the life of the centrally-located park steeply declines. While some outdoor vendors remain, nothing stops me from scurrying back into my office to defrost my face and eat.

In Berlin, people can be seen playing bocce ball, drinking hot beverages, and perusing winter markets all season long. As Vice President of the Project for Public Spaces notes, “No one will stay outdoors to stare at an empty plaza.” The culture of a city must encourage residents to actually enjoy themselves outdoors, not merely tolerate it as they go to and from work or errands. Many U.S. cities put up European-inspired holiday markets, decorative lights, and plan events during the month of December. These are changes that residents welcome and look forward to. However, once December 25 rolls past, many of these amenities close up, leaving public spaces without an express reason to congregate in them.

In German and Austrian cities, markets are not just a part of the Christmas economy, but a wintertime social staple. Cities like Vienna and Munich boast well thought out event calendars that seek to keep people coming outdoors all winter, while Paris and Edinburgh make a point to leave decorative lights up past Christmas. While these measures may seem subtle, they make all the difference in the social life (and the resulting mental and physical wellbeing of their residents). They also move past cultural centrism, and create inclusive opportunities for people to come together. If LOVE Park made the same effort to provide activities and hot food after the holiday market leaves, I might grab a coworker and tolerate the chilly temperatures on my lunch hour and beyond.

While this winter is an exception, perhaps it will make Americans a little more willing to come out and enjoy their cities even when it requires them to bundle up. As simple activities like taking a walk have gained new popularity, cities can work with residents to ensure that their sidewalks, streets, and parks are welcoming to pedestrians. Looking both north and west for inspiration, northern U.S. cities can move into a new decade of public conviviality that helps us stop searching for flights to Florida and love where we are all year round.

Sophia Burns is a writer and community educator based in Philadelphia, USA. She writes about the intersections of race, class, and geography, as well as multiracial identity. Having grown up in a working-class suburb, she is interested in uplifting in-between places via the narratives of those who live there. She has been working in youth social justice education since 2015. A language lover, she speaks Spanish and Portuguese, she is currently training to teach yin yoga and enjoys being by the water.


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