If chilly days are part of your town’s weather, you can be sure winters are getting colder, even though 2014 was the warmest year on record. That’s how the rest of the world views it, anyway.
The emergence of round-the-clock sensationalist weather coverage—where each blizzard, ice storm and cold snap is covered in excruciating detail—means everyone knows when ice coats city streets or the mercury dips below zero.
That’s a problem in an increasingly globalized economy and mobile society when investment, jobs, and young people have more opportunities than ever to roam the world. It’s tough for towns to thrive if people everywhere else think they’re frozen, lonesome tundras where everyone hibernates 3-5 months a year.
And this problem is becoming more acute as the Millennial Generation begins to take over from the Baby Boomers, who are retiring in droves. The Millennials are the first generation that reports they will choose a good place over a good job. So winter cities need to keep themselves attractive and fun 52 weeks a year, or else. A cold weather city must do things better than San Diego or Sydney or Capetown just to stay even.
Mark Twain famously said, everyone talks about the weather but no one does anything about it. Well, actually you can do quite a lot about the weather in terms of how people think about and experience it.
A lack of vision—not freezing temperatures, cloudy skies, early sunsets or deep snow—is the biggest problem facing cold weather cities. As Gil Penalosa—a Colombian and former parks commissioner in Bogotá, who has happily adapted to life in Toronto where he is the founder of 8-80 Cities—explains, “Winter is really a question of mental attitude. Thanks to new lightweight warm clothes you don’t have to pile on thick coats and three layers of mufflers like you once did. It’s much easier to enjoy yourself outside. It’s really up to you how much fun you have in winter.”
And it is up to people living in winter cities to let the rest of the world know that we don’t lead grim lives five months a year.
I live in Minneapolis, and actually like the winter here. It’s invigorating. It’s beautiful. It opens up a rhythm in our lives for contemplation and reflection. And it makes me really, truly appreciative of spring, summer, and fall weather. No one in Minnesota is ever ho-hum about a sunny day in the 70's, or sometimes even one in the 50's. Yet it’s hard to convince people living in warmer places that I am not just making that up to comfort myself about a lousy climate.
The fact is, winter cities rank very high on lists of the happiest places.
Why Does Cold Weather Makes Us Happy?
That’s explains why a survey of the happiest and unhappiest cities in the US (which has a wider range of climates than most countries) conducted by Men’s Health magazine went as follows:
9. Burlington, VT
8. St. Paul, MN
7. Sioux Falls, SD
6. Madison, WI
5. Boston, MA
4. Omaha, NE
3. Fargo, ND
2. Manchester, NH
Eight of the nine happiest cities experience genuinely cold weather. #1 was, inexplicably Honolulu, HI.
Who ranked last? Balmy St. Petersburg, Florida—with Tampa, Miami, Las Vegas, Birmingham and Memphis all in the bottom ten.
In the Gallup Healthways Well-being 2014 Index of the happiest states, the top seven feature long stretches of real winter weather:
2. South Dakota
1. North Dakota
One reason cold places rank happier is the sense of social solidarity that arises out of it. People feel the responsibility to look out for each other. A number of times here in Minneapolis I have encountered a person staggering down the street late on a frigid night, and offered them a ride home. In several cases, the trip took several hours because they were so incapacitated they could not remember their address. Had I left them to fend for themselves in Texas or California, they would wake up with a roaring hangover. In Minneapolis, they likely would never wake up.
And note that the Nordic countries, with their share-the-wealth political traditions, generally dominate international rankings for happiness—especially Denmark. Denmark is notorious for miserable winter weather—icy rain accompanied by reliably gray skies. The sun doesn't rise until mid-morning, and the sky turns dark again by four.
Yet as I discovered on a visit to Copenhagen, Aarhus, and Velje, city streets are alive with the sound of people having fun. I remember one January night when a bone-chilling wind blowing through central Copenhagen knocked down a good share of the bicycles parked all around, but people of many ages were strolling the streets talking and smiling.
The Danish architect Jan Gehl, a worldwide authority on how to enliven cities by building great public spaces, notes, “Cultures and climates differ all over the world, but people are the same. They will gather in public if you give them a good place to do it.”
Winter Wonderland Copenhagen
Gehl points out that Copenhagen has extended its “nice weather” season by two months in the fall and in the spring by adding heaters, supplying blankets, and cozying things up with candles for people who want to continue to sit outside in sidewalk cafes.
Danish landscape architects are paying more attention to patterns of wind and sunshine so people can comfortably stay outdoors in parks and squares. One of the best ways to do this is offer movable chairs, so people can scoot over to bask in the sunshine and duck out of the wind. Maintenance of public spaces—plowing the snow and chipping away the ice—is essential to encouraging people to come out in winter.
There’s nothing in Danes’ DNA that specially equips them to make winter a festive season while we are condemned to shiver. Copenhagen is wonderful, wonderful, as the old song says, but any place can enliven itself to show that winter does not have to be an obstacle to enjoying life.
Berlin sets up bocce ball courts in the snow. Minneapolis sponsors a cross-country ski race through the heart of town and beginning, this year a winter bike race. St. Paul stages a torchlight parade complete with a precision drill team pushing snow-blowers in formation.
The first step in creating great winter cities is recapturing the enthusiasm kids show this time of year. What child (of any age) doesn’t welcome a fresh snowfall? What’s more fun than skating, skiing, sledding, warming yourself up at bonfire, taking in an outdoor market or festival, or drinking mulled cider or wine with friends?
But so long as winter weather is associated only with difficult driving conditions and burdensome shoveling, as happens with most TV weather reports, people in northern cities will continue to hole up in their homes or make plans for moving south.
Here are some other ideas on how to make cold cities cool:
In Ottawa, the canals become the focal point of civic life in the winter as folks strap on their blades for a chance to skate through a wintry landscape rather than just making circles around a rink or pond. In Winnipeg, you can skate for kilometers at the Forks and people even commute to work that way. Edmonton, Alberta, which recently sponsored an international Winter Cities conference, is considering a proposal for a freezeway, which would let people skate 11 kilometers through town.
Edmonton is pursuing ambitious plans to become a “world-leading winter city” including the world’s largest public snowfight, a municipal contest for the best front-yard winterscape and a series of festivals celebrating ice sculpture, cross-country skiing and light displays.
Throughout Europe holiday markets make sure the city stays lively once the mercury drops. This tradition has now come to North America, with many of them continuing beyond the New Year. Minneapolis now has five winter markets going until spring.
Winter carnivals are another great tradition to spice up the doldrums of late January or February. St. Paul too has been throwing a mid-winter bash for more than 100 years that resembles a frozen Mardi Gras. The whole event revolves around a fanciful battle pitting King Boreas, the reigning monarch of the winds, in alliance with Aurora, the Snow Queen, against the Rex Vulcanus, the God of Fire, and his followers who wear red suits and ride firetrucks around town.
About every ten years, St. Paul builds an ice palace and the whole town turns out to celebrate. But Harbin, China does things on a bigger scale with massive castles and statues during January’s month-long International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival.
Darkness, as much as cold and snow, can limit people’s enjoyment of the outdoors during winter. Smart cities are responding by artistically stringing lights throughout business districts, creating an overall ambiance of delight that makes us want to linger outside even when it is chilly. And the lights shine all winter, not just the holiday season. Scotland may be the leader in creative lighting today. In Edinburgh, attention is focused on key streets with creatively designed overhead lighting as part of a mesh roof for the street.
Paris also creates the illusion of a winter wonderland by lighting trees, with pale blue lights creating a dramatic effect. “Every store in Paris tries to outdo the others with artistic lighting displays,” reports Project for Public Spaces vice president Ethan Kent.
I think a lot of the depression blamed on winter weather is really more about the sense of isolation we feel this time of year when everyone holes up at home. We evolved as social creatures, driven to seek other people to hang out with, so winter loneliness feels unnatural and sad to us.
Winter cities need a full roster of social activities like these from November to April to show they can be great places for everyone to live—and not just big public events but small and informal events at a neighborhood park or other favorite local commons.