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Can Boston become a ‘winter city’?

How a ‘winter placemaking’ plan could help communities and businesses get through the dark season ahead.

In the Seaport, holiday lights are all around a curling ice sheet that is open for use by the public.
In the Seaport, holiday lights are all around a curling ice sheet that is open for use by the public.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

With temperatures dropping, COVID-19 cases surging, and a vaccine still months away from the public at large, there’s little doubt that a dark winter is ahead for the Commonwealth. But in a series of new efforts, cities like Worcester, Salem, and North Adams are trying to counter that darkness with light.

The cities are part of a pilot program from the Barr Foundation that is funding light installations, fire pits, and other outdoor “activations” to draw visitors to their downtowns even as the mercury drops. The concept is called winter placemaking, and the benefits are numerous: keeping citizens active rather than camped out on the couch, promoting mental health in anxious times, and providing an economic boost to local businesses.

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Now, some Boston business owners are wondering, why not us?

After all, hearty Canadians dine and play outside year-round, and Scandinavians counter their soul-crushing subzero winters with an entire mindset: hygge, or the notion of getting cozy with the ones you love. Amid a continuing global health crisis, there’s a growing chorus calling for Boston to become more of a “winter city.”

“We need a change in mindset,” said Mary Skelton Roberts, co-director of Climate for the Barr Foundation, who oversaw the distribution of the winter placemaking grants (the Barr Foundation also supports the Globe’s education reporting). “There’s no excuse, honestly, for Boston not to embrace this if they really are about supporting small businesses and providing outlets for people during COVID. Winterizing the city is something they have to take seriously.”

And doing that safely is paramount, of course.

“The whole concept of placemaking is brilliant and a great way to make cities more livable and to fight social isolation,” said Dr. Philip Landrigan, an epidemiologist and director of the Global Public Health Program at Boston College. While bullish on the concept, he underscored the need to maintain social distance and limit crowds, particularly as we weather another COVID surge: “If we can engineer some winter placemaking in downtown Boston that meets the [CDC] criteria, then I’d be all for it.”

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The City of Edmonton's WinterCity initiative embraces the cold weather.
The City of Edmonton's WinterCity initiative embraces the cold weather. Laughing Dog Photography Inc./City of Edmonton

So how does one “reprogram” cities for winter? Just ask Isla Tanaka, the winter city planner for Edmonton, Alberta.

“I talk about winter all year,” she jokes.

The small western Canadian city sees average low temperatures of 5 degrees Fahrenheit in January, when the city typically gets just three hours of winter sun a day. So, for a long time, it did what Boston does now: “We hibernated and closed facilities and parks, we hid from the outside and talked about how it was minus-30 for six months of the year,” Tanaka said.

But eight years ago, Edmonton decided it was time to change. It created a community-led think tank to question its approach to winter, which involved everything from examining regulations and permits to asking local meteorologists to talk more positively about frigid temps, telling people to bundle up and get outside. And they engaged the public.

“We asked: What would help you fall in love with winter in Edmonton?” Tanaka said. “We were really going for a cultural shift.”

Today, Edmonton hands out colorful blankets for its restaurants’ year-round patios. It’s installed public fire pits in its parks, clears off picnic tables after snowfall, operates several ice rinks, and keeps the snow groomed in parks and golf courses for cross-country ski trails and snowshoeing. It also hosts the International Festival of Winter Cinema, which involves projecting films onto a snow screen.

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Many of the city’s plans have been adjusted this year due to COVID-19, but with its winter programming—and mindset — already in place, it was easy to adapt, Tanaka said.

Seeing how successfully other cities have embraced winter is frustrating for restaurateurs like Ken Oringer, who said he petitioned Mayor Martin J. Walsh for months to extend the outdoor patio season beyond its December deadline, to no avail. The city shut down outdoor dining the first week of December and announced plans this week to reopen patios in April of 2021.

But many restaurateurs say they were willing to stick it out in the hopes they might have another mild winter like the year prior. Cambridge, Somerville, and Brookline have all extended their patio seasons into winter.

“I’ve had personal conversations with the mayor saying he could be a hero,” said Oringer, who co-owns Uni, Toro, and Coppa in Boston. Restaurateurs spent tens of thousands of dollars to build outdoor patios only to pack them up at the start of this month, he said.

“Why can’t we create an outdoor winter wonderland? Couldn’t you see Newbury Street closed for the winter with people shopping and eating and drinking in the street?” Oringer asked.

City officials point out that the pilot patio program was a hugely successful lifeline for restaurants -- but keeping them open was a bridge too far this season, as the city’s century-old streets still need plowing.

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“You’re going from a city that had hardly any outdoor patios to one that approved 550 patios in a matter of weeks,” Boston Licensing Board chair Kathleen Joyce told the Globe. “You have to give us some more time to figure out how to do this, and do this even better than we did in 2020.”

Whether Boston can still successfully embrace the season comes down to planning, says Skelton. She said the city should create a calendar of programming that gets people outdoors while offering opportunities for comfort -- like warming huts or other heating sources -- to let them linger.

But Sarah Fortune, a professor of immunology and infectious diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said that for now at least, public health must take precedence over fire pits.

“I love that idea but I’m also cognizant of the fact that the city has a lot to do” to handle the current surge, she said, and would prefer to see the city spend money on testing above all else. But, she said, “if people can really be aware of their own risk behaviors, we could be in a position in January where we can happily sit around a fire pit and roast marshmallows.”

Meanwhile, other communities are already rolling out their winter plans. North Adams is installing a fire pit and creating an evergreen walkway through its commercial corridor to help drive foot traffic. Salem has hung colorful lighting, and will display public art and selfie stations in its downtown shopping district to help its businesses make up for some of the revenue they lost during Halloween due to restrictions.

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“We used to really push the holiday season,” said Kylie Sullivan, executive director of Salem Main Streets. “I’m really thinking of this as the winter season.”

One-year-old Elijah Carpadae looked at the Christmas lights in Worcester Common.
One-year-old Elijah Carpadae looked at the Christmas lights in Worcester Common.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

And in Worcester, city officials are using $30,000 in grant funding to expand its annual Festival of Lights from two days to several months, and are distributing light installations throughout the city to help drive business to local stores. “We lose so much during these pandemic times, but we also have the opportunity to be creative and do something we might never have done,” said Yaffa Fain, a program assistant with the city’s cultural development division.

 Yidania Infante,8, had her picture taken in a light tunnel in Worcester Common.
Yidania Infante,8, had her picture taken in a light tunnel in Worcester Common.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Some winter programming is also underway in Boston. Seaport-goers can try curling, take winter walking tours, and search for a Betty the Yeti mascot. Boston Harbor Now plans to place a dozen ice sculptures around the city for its annual New Year’s “Ice Sculpture Stroll,” and is hosting a series of winter walks that will feature experts on “forest bathing,” a type of nature retreat.

But part of the challenge is ensuring that those opportunities are available to everyone and in all corners of the city, said Karen Mauney-Brodek, president of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy.

Mauney-Brodek has worked to create winter programming for students in Boston Public Schools, only to find that many students don’t have warm enough clothing for outdoor events.

And Liz Vizza, president of the Friends of the Public Garden, said that while the parks in her network -- Boston Common, Public Garden, and the Commonwealth Avenue mall -- saw remarkable traffic during the spring and summer, keeping facilities open all winter is difficult. Pipes freeze, and bathrooms and other warming huts can be difficult to supervise during a pandemic, particularly as a growing number of unhoused individuals are seeking out the park for shelter.

Most urban planners say that despite such challenges, creating winter programming is often relatively inexpensive, and could have enormous benefits this year.

“Every city’s resources are stretched thin, but there are little things that could have been done to keep people going through the winter,“ said Jonathan Berk, principal at Bench Consulting, a placemaking consulting firm that worked with the Barr Foundation to plan projects and distribute the grant funding.

“If there’s any year that we have to embrace winter outdoors, this is the year,” he added. “I think we’re a heartier city than we give ourselves credit for.”

The "Guest Services Gondola" in the Seaport.
The "Guest Services Gondola" in the Seaport.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.