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It's Cold. It's Dark. It's Grey.

Winter can become an asset in Grand Rapids. All it takes is some inspiration from our neighbors to the north.
The use of light at Erie Street Plaza to invite people into the plaza during winter

The use of light at Erie Street Plaza to invite people into the plaza during winter /John December

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Six Lessons for Making Great Winter Cities

Advice taken from Project for Public Spaces

In the winter, when the environment offers more challenges, we need to think about public spaces and events differently. Great winter cities have learned some key lessons for success:

·Winter events should last awhile, preferably more than a week. Activities should offer more than a tree lighting followed by carols. Specific events are best tied to an ongoing winter activity like a skating rink.

·The events and activities should overlap and be spaced out. A series of ongoing events can be created that cumulatively last three months or even longer, depending on the length of the winter season.

·Different types of activities and events should be combined so they can build off each other. For example, combining a skating rink, outdoor café, outdoor library reading room, children’s play area and food or holiday market entices people to stay for a few hours or more, even when it’s cold and dark outside.

·Focus on what makes a particular city special. In Germany, Austria and France, local specialties like wursts, mulled wines, or oysters foster a sense of local identity at outdoor winter events. They highlight what is unique about the place while also providing people with the draw of warm food and drink on a cold day. Locally made goods and gifts can serve the same purpose.

·Creative lighting is key because it creates an ambiance for the city center as a whole. Lighting can create the feeling that winter activities and events are much bigger than they really are.

·Management is essential. Without management of a city’s spaces, no winter activities would occur. Competent and ambitious management leads to great results.

children warm up at the campfire in Dufferin Park in the city of Toronto

children warm up at the campfire in Dufferin Park in the city of Toronto /Friends of Dufferin Park

a temporary ice rink at Richmond Park adds layers of activity to a great winter park

a temporary ice rink at Richmond Park adds layers of activity to a great winter park /Friends of GR Parks

It’s cold. It’s dark. It’s grey. It’s winter in Grand Rapids.

I moved to Grand Rapids in the late '90s, and my first winter here made me think I had found the end of the earth. I questioned why any reasonable human being would locate to a city here. I watched the movie Fargo, and felt a kinship with the criminals that were under-prepared for the frigid temps. Sitting in my apartment, I was transported to the set of “The Thing,” and I waited for Kurt Russell to bust through the door, Antarctic winds swirling, telling me that something had gone horribly wrong and I needed to move, NOW! As I went to the locals to ask them how they made it through the cold months, they gave me answers like: use the skywalks downtown, schedule a vacation for February to somewhere warm, find a place with a fireplace and hunker down. But I don't want to live in a place that tries to escape from its northern, frozen identity. I want to live in one that embraces it.

About 10 years ago, I attended a lecture by Jan Gehl, a Danish Architect and urban design consultant based in Copenhagen. What still sticks with me from his talk was his simple motto about incrementally building a city in a northern climate that embraces winter. He said that each year his goal as a planner was to find ways to extend fall one more week and bring spring one week earlier. He wanted to help make the street life, park life and city life, that was so vibrant in the summer months, extend farther into the colder time of year. And Copenhagen has become a winter destination, a place that global travelers seek out during the most inhospitable times of year. 

For nearly a third of the year, most of our parks and public spaces in Grand Rapids lose all of their functionality and sit dormant waiting for warmer days. Too many cities shut off the lights, close the gates and lock up the shelters once the cold weather hits. Grand Rapids can no longer afford to let these vital assets stay unused for so much of the year. So how do we continue to incrementally turn winter into an asset for Grand Rapids?

We can look to our neighbors to the north for some inspiration. 

In Toronto, volunteers organize and manage over 40 neighborhood ice rinks and the City allows campfires in parks in designated areas. Toronto also just opened a skate trail, for those skaters that want to do more than just go in circles on the rink. In Ottawa, the, the Rideau Canal becomes a 7.8 kilometer skateway. All along the skateway are warm-up huts, where there are fires, hot drinks and snacks. And who is up for some Ice Canoeing in Quebec City? If that’s not your thing, then there is a ton of small popup shops that go along with their winter festivals.

Like most great placemaking initiatives, the challenge resides in quality design that goes with quality programming. We can build a great ice rink, but if there are no skates to rent, no warming shelters and no places buy a cup of hot chocolate, it will be underutilized. As Cynthia Nikitin, Projects for Public Spaces says, “It’s like any other time of the year. If there are people out, other people will come out too to see what’s going on. But there has to be a reason to be outside–a market, ice skating, music, decorative lighting or just a good place to hang out when it’s cold. No one will stay outdoors to stare at an empty plaza.”

This winter, Friends of Grand Rapids Parks is carrying on with its two week celebration of winter at WinterWest at Richmond Park. We are working with East Hills Council of Neighbors, East Town Neighborhood Assocatiation and the City of GR to build more temporary rinks at Cherry Park and Wilcox Park.

So throw on a couple more layers, and get outside. Use that head-clearing cold air to dream about what else we can do to embrace winter in Grand Rapids. As Liz Olson says in her recent blog post titled Winter Is Magic! Go Outside!, “So I made a pact with myself: to live in this winter, not just through it. I decided to buy more gloves, to keep hats handy, to add extra layers. To skip the gym in favor of the snowy lakefront path. To walk home instead of moving from heated building to heated cab and straight back into a heated apartment. To play more and complain less. To welcome these cold months with as much excitement as I did when I was a kid (even if the official snow days no longer exist). And to appreciate each white winter day for how peacefully alive it can make you feel if you get outside long enough to really feel it." Steve Faber Executive Director

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