There will be no ice-skating on the Frog Pond in Boston this winter. First Night has gone “broadcast-only.” Holiday festivals have been canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, we are told not to congregate indoors, and that fresh air and sunlight are the key to staving off illness and depression, just as the temperatures start to plunge. What’s a winter-wary, COVID-cautious city dweller to do?
Luckily, a local consortium of architects, artists, and city planners has some ideas. Back in July, when another spike of coronavirus infections seemed as distant as frostbite, this group of urbanists issued a design challenge for low-cost, easily developed interventions that lean into winter. They sought proposals to activate streets and public spaces in order to encourage people — socially distanced, of course — to venture out into their communities instead of huddling indoors, risking either isolation or infection. Some 65 teams from six countries submitted ideas, resulting in the “Winter Places” design guide of ways to inspire a new way of thinking about the bleak season.
“Our first call was to Edmonton,” said Jonathan Berk, whose firm Bench Consulting organized the design challenge. Canada’s northernmost large city, where the average high temperature in January is 15 degrees (Boston’s is 38 degrees) is at the forefront of rethinking winter. Planners there found that adopting a “winter lens” when designing the city’s public spaces — everything from installing wind barriers to orienting park benches to face south — extended Edmonton’s outdoor season by 30 percent, or seven weeks.
Isla Tanaka, Edmonton’s official winter city planner, outlined her city’s ongoing commitment to retooling itself for winter in a webinar cosponsored by Boston’s Barr Foundation this week: keeping paths plowed through city parks; maintaining clear, protected bike lanes for winter cycling; tweaking city regulations to “create a four-season patio culture,” with hot beverages, fire pits, and s’mores stations; bringing color and light to the darkest days of the year.
Closer to home, New Bedford is one of the first recipients of a modest winter placemaking grant from the Barr Foundation, which focuses its support on gateway cities and other underserved communities. According to New Bedford city planner Anne Louro, the grant will help transform two waterfront parks: one into a play area with a manufactured snow slide, and the other a winter warm-up space. “Providing assistance to our downtown businesses throughout the winter is really critical,” she said.
Additionally, the state’s Department of Transportation has launched a $10 million round of funding, including infrastructure grants, to remodel streets, sidewalks, and parking areas for safe walking and cycling and outdoor commercial activity in the winter months. The Shared Winter Streets and Spaces grant program is open to any community; the first round of applications is due Dec. 4.
The idea is to extend the innovations that many towns began this pandemic summer, when outdoor dining spilled from sidewalks into the streets and repurposed “parklets” shifted the dominion of public space from cars to people. “The biggest thing is looking at our streets differently,” said Berk. “It’s about what happens beyond the curb.” Of course, even hardy New Englanders are unlikely to linger over long outdoor meals in January, so the new winter spaces are designed for shorter, more widely dispersed visits, which also addresses the pandemic dilemma of creating appealing locations that don’t become crowd magnets.
Much of the challenge of drawing people out of their dens in winter is psychological. We tend to globalize our dread of the season and have it reinforced by cultural cues. Just the language used to talk about winter — frigid, harsh, desolate — is daunting, aggravated by meteorologists who hype their dire forecasts of blizzards or the infamous “wintry mix.”
In fact, I am the perfect exemplar of this. I have always loathed winter. I never adopted a winter sport, I never seem to have the right clothing, and I want nothing more in January than to be somewhere with gentle breezes and a sunset after 6 p.m. This year, however, with travel unlikely and indoor conviviality unsafe, I am determined to reframe my attitude toward winter. I know if I can see the beauty in bare branches and ice crystals, and embrace each frosty moment as a blessing, I can find joy in the world just the way it is.
But some creamy hot chocolate around a fire pit wouldn’t hurt.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.