Winter belongs in Edmonton

Denver. Reykjavík. Cambridge, Massachusetts. Copenhagen. Minneapolis. And Edmonton. According to Megan Michelson from Outside Magazine, those seven cities plan best and live FTW—For The Winter. 

“In Edmonton, it was clear that it wasn’t just by accident that the city was becoming an inviting place during the winter,” said Michelson. “It was very much a strategy and united effort on behalf of many city partners.”

Michelson authored the recent story in Outside Magazine that spotlighted the seven cities that “embrace winter like nowhere else,” places where winter is celebrated and not just tolerated. 

Michelson said: “The city is well-known as a place that has excelled in winter placemaking, ranging from outdoor picnic sites to front porch designs to winter placemaking workshops”…

… to heading out in parkas and boots, on cleats and on fatbike tires to check out the Indigenous artwork on the new Tawâtina Bridge. The artwork brings colour to the wintry landscape. The bridge itself reconnects multi-use trails on both sides of the river, encouraging residents to explore the River Valley in all seasons.

“It’s exciting to see so many people using the bridge already and enjoying the stunning pieces of art overhead,” said Isla Tanaka. “That the bridge opened in winter and that it’s already being used so much is very rewarding. Outdoor Magazine is right, we are embracing the outdoors in winter.”

The City of Edmonton’s Isla Tanaka sporting the WinterCity scarf in December 2019.

Isla Tanaka is the Winter City Planner at the City of Edmonton. Tanaka knows the behind-the-scenes work done to help change the experience of winter. 

“We acknowledge that we have winter and we see it as an asset,” said Tanaka.

Tanaka snowshoeing in Hawrelak Park March 2021.

WinterCity strategy melting cold stereotypes

Winter here wasn’t always viewed as an asset. A decade ago it was common to hear that businesses were struggling to recruit people to move to Edmonton for work because of Edmonton’s winter, which had a reputation of being long and harsh. That challenge was one of the driving forces behind the WinterCity Strategy, introduced in 2012. 

The City of Edmonton’s WinterCity Strategy supports winter-specific programs and services that support a four-season winter culture, and encourages Edmontonians to get out and celebrate our winter identity through the arts, recreation, events, storytelling and inspired design.

The strategy helped to dismantle the belief that being outdoors in Edmonton could not be enjoyed year-round. As the recognition from Outside suggests, the strategy has gained momentum.

In 2017, an Insight Survey found that 37 per cent of respondents were spending more time outside in winter in Edmonton compared to the five previous years. 

“During winter 2019-20, City staff saw record numbers of people in the river valley parks enjoying winter activities,” said Tanaka. “This was, of course, in response to COVID-19 and indoor gathering restrictions, but also because we have built our programming and designed the city for outdoor winter activities. Edmontonians are embracing winter like never before.”

An online survey of Edmontonians in March 2021 showed that 75 per cent of the 1,584 respondents spent more or the same amount of time doing winter activities compared to previous years. Forty per cent of respondents said they spent more time outdoors. 

Here’s some of what out-there Edmontonians are doing:

Winter walking

Edmonton’s winter sun and skyline snapped during a winter walk.

An Insight Survey on outdoor activities during winter 2019-20 identified winter walking as the most popular, with 79 per cent of respondents saying they put on winter boots for a stroll in the snow. Be sure to dress for the conditions and check out some of Edmonton’s trails.

Skating

Figure skater gliding on the ice at Rundle Park.

Flooded rinks at Castle Downs Park, Jackie Parker Park, Hawrelak Park, Rundle Park and Victoria Park, including the illuminated IceWays at Victoria and Rundle Parks, are winter winners for Edmontonians young and old. For skating in the heart of the city, find free skate rentals at the City Hall outdoor ice rink.

Cross-Country Skiing

Grooving at Victoria Park.

Victoria Park offers a gentle loop tailor-made for beginners at the foot of the downtown skyline.

Cross-country skiers in Goldbar Park taken in 2014.

The City and Edmonton Nordic Ski Club groom more than 30 km of cross-country ski trails in the river valley parks, including Gold Bar, Capilano Park, Goldstick Park and Kinsmen Park. Be sure to check out a trail map before stepping into skis.

Tobogganing

Toboggan run set up on Queen Elizabeth Hill.

This winter the City of Edmonton set up a new toboggan run on Queen Elizabeth Hill with a view of the scenic Walterdale Bridge. Here’s where you can check out the conditions on your favourite hill

Sitting on an outdoor patio

Photo of friends at a winter patio in downtown Edmonton.

Winter patios have become increasingly popular, with more cafés, pubs and restaurants setting up new spaces each year. Check out participating patios here! Some, but not all, venues have heating elements, so it’s a good idea to take a blanket with you, or you can purchase one of the Warming Kits for $10, which goes to the Boyle Street Community Services Winter Warming Bus program. Share your winter patio snapshots with the hashtag #YEGWinterPatios.

Attending a winter festival

Woolly Mammoth Lantern Sculpture by artist Gabs at the gallery of lights set up at Borden Park for Deep Freeze: A Byzantine Winter Fête.

Alberta Avenue’s Deep Freeze: A Byzantine Winter Festival presented by Arts on the Ave blooms on 118 Avenue every year and this year it expanded to feature a promenade through Borden Park with a gallery of lights and ice sculptures. For a full list of upcoming winter festivals and events including Ice on Whyte, the Flying Canoë Volant Festival and the Silver Skate Festival, check out the WinterCity Edmonton website

Like an iceberg

“Think of the WinterCity Strategy as an iceberg with the most obvious outdoor activities visible at the top,” said Tanaka.

“Those were the festivals and events, those things we see in our city every winter,” said Tanaka. “We have some great winter festivals and events, but we really wanted to dig deep down and have a look at all of those unconscious things that we really weren’t aware of. For example, are the park budgets going to summer and winter programming? What unconscious summer biases have we built into our policies and procedures? 

“Our patio permits, for example, used to allow patios only from May 1st to October 31st. Great. What about the rest of the year? Why not change that?” said Tanaka.

They changed it.

Warming to the patio

The City of Edmonton’s Local Economy and Permits and Licensing teams work closely with local businesses through permitting processes. In partnership with the WinterCity program they help businesses set up patios year-round, including starting the conversation throughout the year through hosted winter patio workshops on permits and design, helping businesses learn tips and tricks for creating inviting winter patios, including how to keep their staff safe and warm in the conditions.

It’s those conditions that determine when the patios are open. Just like in summer.

“The thing to remember is that no one is going to sit outside when it’s -30 degrees Celsius, but we don’t sit outside in the summer when it’s bucketing rain, either,” said Tanaka. “When we spoke to the venues about this campaign, I let them know that the patios don’t need to be open every day for this to work.” 

And, it’s working. This year, WinterCity is supporting 16 participating businesses in the winter patio campaign.

“We’ve gone from having maybe five to 16 this winter, which is great,” said Tanaka. “We really want to help support those venues. A lot of them invested in patio infrastructure in response to COVID-19, so let’s help them get the best return on their investment.”

WinterCity’s Winter Warming Kit available at participating #YEGWinterPatio locations.

Those businesses are also good places to invest in the bigger community. Winter Warming Kits provided to the businesses include a WinterCity blanket or scarf, a postcard by local artist Jason Blower, an I Heart YEG Winter button and lip balm. The kits can be purchased at participating #YEGWinterPatios locations, with all proceeds going to the Boyle Street Community Services Winter Warming Bus Program. 

“We are in winter outside together in our city,” said Tanaka. “The good parts of it and the challenging parts of it, too.”

Take a closer look at “winter placemaking” at work in the WinterCity Patio program:  

That term, placemaking

In the end, the WinterCity Strategy is about ways to transform spaces, making them the kinds of places people want to be in the winter. 

That transformation is what caught the attention of Outside Magazine’s Megan Michelson. 

“Winter placemaking wasn’t a term I was familiar with before this story, but after researching the topic, I’m a big fan of the concept now,” said Michelson.

 “It means places—cities, towns, parks—that are reimagining outdoor spaces and public places to encourage people to enjoy those spaces even during the coldest months of the year. That could mean installing outdoor firepits or heated seating or stringing lights, or it could be holding ice carving festivals or winter outdoor music concerts. Basically anything that gets people outdoors and creates a cozy, inviting space.”

To which the City of Edmonton’s Tanaka said: “See you outside this winter!”

Find out more about upcoming winter events and initiatives by visiting the WinterCity website.

Editor’s Note: Outside Magazine is an award-winning, national publication based in the United States that covers the culture of the outdoors in print and online.