— The Urbanist —

Defrosting Design

City’s new design guidelines can make downtown winters warmer

Source: edmonton.ca

Source: edmonton.ca

“For the Love of Winter” sounds like something you’d get in your Christmas stocking, but it probably wouldn’t fit. At 152 letter-sized pages, the City of Edmonton’s draft of winter design guidelines is, by some experts’ estimates, the most comprehensive in the world. When council inevitably approves a version of it in 2016, it could help shape our architecture and public spaces for decades to come.

For many, “winter design” means good insulation and a decent furnace — not colour, lighting, entryways, setbacks, heated patios or street furnishings. But the principal planner, Nola Kilmartin, who’s since left the city for private architectural firm Kennedy, can sum it up in a few words: “Good winter design is good year-round design.”

She means designing buildings to block winds, maximize sunshine through orientation and add some zest to winter-scapes through colour and light. Yet much of our design choices — particularly downtown — seem imported from southern climates or engineered for our discomfort: drab colours; sharp-cornered buildings that accelerate windspeed; Melrose-style open walkways that absorb snowmelt into the concrete and create condo nightmares.

There are full blocks absent of a single operable door, thus leaving sidewalks with little to no activity, a state which Kilmartin says is psychologically straining. “If you’re going to be outside walking around you don’t want to feel like you’re in a desolate wasteland, where you’re being windswept by northwesterly chills causing you to freeze off your face.”

However, there are signs of change, even without the encouragement of 2011’s Winter City Strategy (the impetus for the design guidelines). The Cactus Club’s fire-lit patio comes to mind, as do the colourful lights that’ve made the High Level bridge most noticeable during the season’s long nights. “It’s now an icon all year round,” notes Ian O’Donnell, chair of DECL’s development committee.

He would like to see the guidelines strengthened. Even with council’s approval they’ll be little more than suggestions; the policy equivalent of a best-before date. He thinks they should be a requirement, like land-use zoning, which determines what types of development can exist in certain areas. “We can’t just put them out to market and let them be.”

To that point, the City is preparing pamphlets for business-owners, builders and other private interests to help educate them on the big and small ways they can make Edmonton a great winter city. Don’t worry — it’ll only be a few pages long.

Small Ways to Make Your Business More Winter-Friendly
• Maintain your front landscaping year-round
• Enter through your front door to animate the streets
• Put chairs outside — and wipe them

• Add small-scale street furniture like sandwich boards
• String lights in your windows to help illuminate streets