Edmonton’s long, chilly winters are a big part of what makes our city tick. Although this year wasn’t a great example (where did all the snow go?!), we’re pretty familiar with winter lasting from October to April, typically with a few extra strong cold snaps throughout that period. As a city, we used to find it cool to be angry at the cold, but over the years, Edmonton has grown to not only accept its climate, but embrace it. This acceptance of the winter is important not only for our own attitudes, but for the city as a whole, and the more we can design our city with our signature season in mind, the easier it is for everyone to enjoy it.

This is where the Edmonton Winter Design Guidelines come in. They’re being created as a strategic tool for local city builders, such as planners, developers and community leagues, to help reshape our urban environment. The guidelines provide solutions and examples of ways to reduce the tougher aspects of winter, like cold winds, slippery ice, and long hours of darkness, while taking advantage of the wonderful parts, too – prairie sunshine, crisp blue skies, sparkling blankets of snow, and fantastic outdoor activities!

But what exactly does designing for winter mean? How do we tackle such a large undertaking? And why should we? Edmonton’s Winter Design Guidelines (in draft form now) are some of the most thorough of their kind in existence, but for those of us who don’t have a background in architecture or urban design, the heart of this design movement can be broken down into five main principles:

  1. Incorporate design strategies to block wind, particularly prevailing winds and downdrafts.
  2. Maximize exposure to sunshine through orientation and design.
  3. Use colour to enliven the winterscape.
  4. Create visual interest with light, while being mindful of density, spread, and colour.
  5. Design and provide infrastructure that supports desired winter life and improves comfort in cold weather.

For some of us, it’s easy enough to read through the main principles, but difficult to imagine what they look like when they’re utilized in our spaces, or what sort of impact they can have on our lives. The truth is, designing for winter affects us on so many levels, and it’s highly unlikely that you haven’t already felt the impact of Edmonton moving in this direction. A multi-departmental City of Edmonton team worked with a multitude of stakeholders to create the Winter Design Guidelines. Nola Kilmartin, now with Kennedy Create, was a member of the team, and emphasizes just how much great urban design can do for our everyday lives in winter: “My main hope [for the guidelines] is to improve pedestrian comfort and experience. If we want to promote an active and vibrant winter city, people need to feel comfortable and safe and engaged—we need an environment that’s not hostile to them.”


Photo from Flickr user Erlend Schei.

There’s a big physical and mental health component to designing a city for winter. In colder climates, car culture can keep us very isolated. If we’re not dressed for the weather, we rush our way through our day, keeping our heads down and not interacting with other people. But if there are spaces available where pedestrians can feel welcome and comfortable in the winter—outdoor cafes or plazas, for example, that provide fire pits and blankets or are located to harness the sunlight—people will show up. “People attract other people,” says Kilmartin, adding that a huge element of winter design is giving people a reason to show up; if we engage them with visual interest and give them an environment they feel good in, they will linger. “The convenience factor is so important in cold climates—it’s got to be comfortable or you won’t see anybody!”

If you’ve enjoyed one of Edmonton’s outdoor winter patios, you know just how pleasant and fun they are. Kilmartin points out that in the sunshine, we can feel up to 10 degrees warmer (that’s a huge difference!), so if we’re able to harness that sunlight, our customers, audiences, and participants will be willing to be outdoors for much longer. The more the city embraces these types of spaces, the more the economy will also benefit. More active customers results in an automatic economic boost, but on a larger scale, too, the more winter-friendly our public spaces and buildings are, the more efficient they are, thereby using less energy and fewer resources to function.

When we get into architecture and building design, it can be a challenge to understand how Edmonton—an established city—can become more winter friendly without rebuilding everything from the ground up. This is where a lot of questions about how realistic the Winter Design Guidelines come up. Can we truly incorporate winter design into Edmonton? What can we realistically hope for?

“You don’t make a plan like this to get implemented in two minutes,” says Simon O’Byrne, Vice President and Discipline Leader of Urban Planning at Stantec, “It takes a generation.” According to O’Byrne, Edmonton has a number of aging buildings that will need to be replaced or reworked over the next 30-40 years. As we rebuild, we have the opportunity to do so in the smartest way possible, not only considering our environmental footprint, but also building placement and orientation. Are we embracing the sun? Controlling the wind? Will the pedestrian experience be positive or put them through the ringer?

According to O’Byrne, not only will these elements improve our lives in the winter, they will also enhance our city year-round. “If you can make a city vibrant, energetic, lively, and friendly in January, then you can do it any time at all,” O’Byrne says. After all, designing a building or neighbourhood that only works in July is a huge waste of resources and investment. So considering the winter lens in our designs just makes good sense, and gives us a full return on our investment.

O’Byrne also reminds us about the huge opportunity we have in the winter thanks to our long, dark nights. “For six months of the year, we have a wonderful palette to work with in the dark and a great opportunity to make things exciting and visually interesting,” he says. By viewing darkness and coldness as assets instead of liabilities, it allows us to change our thinking about what makes safe and lively public spaces, and to tailor that thinking to our own situation. Ultimately, this will make for a more livable city, especially for people who want to spend more time in public spaces.

Kilmartin is passionate about the “pedestrian perception zone,” which refers to the first few floors of any building or tower (the only part of the building we interact with as pedestrians). “We’ve all been on an urban street and wanted to get out of there because of the wind. There are lots of ways around that.” From altering the shape of a tower to reduce wind speeds to building recesses or step backs to position the tower further away from the street to building altogether narrower towers to reduce the amount and duration of shadow they cast, making the pedestrian perception zone more welcoming and interesting is definitely doable. It’s just a matter of focusing and working with what we’ve got.

Plaza 124

A local example of stepbacks: Plaza 124. Photo by Flicker user Kurt Bauschardt.

Which completely ties into one of our guiding principles – Authentic.  This means designing with our particular winter context in mind. Winters here are different from winters in other parts of Canada and the world. We need to think about our natural environment, our sunshine, our heritage, our actual temperatures and snowfall. Winter design solutions in Finland or Quebec wouldn’t necessarily be appropriate here.


Glenora Skyline Urban Square

Supplied to The Edmonton Journal by inhouseyeg.

In Edmonton, the recently approved West Block tower project in Glenora will be designed in such a way that the towers create a sun-trap, which will house a plaza with retail shops and cafes near a future LRT stop.

We have an exciting road ahead of us in Edmonton. While we certainly can’t start over, it’s important for us to focus on how to improve future buildings and spaces for our climate, and also on the many things we can do to enhance our current spaces. It doesn’t take much digging to find projects like winter patios, warming huts, and events like 124 Street’s All is Bright festival or the Flying Canoe Volant festival in Mill Creek Ravine that prove Edmonton is on track and embracing its WinterCity title. What we need to do is stay on that track.

“I call it Radical Incrementalism,” says Simon O’Byrne. “It’s the cumulative effect of doing small things. WinterCity design is a significant example of this. As long as we have constant progress, what we will see is a massive change.”