The City: What a Winter Wonderland

When I tell Viennese about the regular amounts of snow that accumulate in Chicago they enviously bemoan the frequent lack of snow in Vienna (it’s not always missing, but enough so to be surprising in the capital of a ski crazed country). While Chicagoans moan about the winter there are places where its welcomed. We must be doing something wrong to not realize what other cities already have: The season offers ample opportunities for recreation and fun that are worth exploring.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of Viennese locals who dislike the winter and also skiing (and plenty who oddly enough love skiing, but they hate winter). A noticeable difference exists between how people approach winter here and in Chicago however, and part of this certainly seems correlated to the potential for exercise and outdoor activities, which aren’t limited to mountainous sports. Before Christmas, markets proliferate and some transition into outdoor bars adjoining skating rinks in January. By February the festivities start again as Fasching (Germanic Mardi Gras) roars into life.

A little research (the Project For Public Spaces provides a solid outline for strong public spaces in the winter) and anecdotal experience reveals even cities with extreme winter conditions like Montréal, the Twin Cities, and Edmonton view winter as less an impediment, but in many cases an asset. Chicago, as do many other cold weather cities, has plenty of room to grow.

And yeah, when it comes down to it, the most pressing solution to Chicago’s (and many other Metropolises’) winter woes is getting the city to impactfully enforce snow clearance policies, and really begin ticketing offenders, but as immediate as that would be felt though (it’s a well documented issue) it alone won’t get us through the winter.

So, what can be done?

  • Let’s start by maximizing on winter proof infrastructure. Chicago’s under

    Montréal’s Ville Souterraine (Underground City) is an example for other cold weather cities to reflect. While Chicago likely can’t (and shouldn’t) mimic this scale it remains a good model to build on.

    utilized downtown underground pedway system comes to mind. It connects Loop transportation, government offices, shopping, and entertainment without requiring one step outside, yet many Chicagoans don’t realize it exists. It remains difficult to navigate and closes early. Simple improvements to navigability, place making, and better shopping, and aesthetic improvements could do the trick.

  • It goes without saying changes to transit infrastructure include very practical ‘winter proofing’ ranging from more and better bus shelters plus more heated shelters. And, it probably wouldn’t be in the city’s worst interest to promote design recommendations for new and renovated ‘L’ station that protect against the harshest aspects of Chicago’s winters (read: biting wind). The new Cermack-McCormack Place Green Line stop for example has a stately shed helps keep passengers more comfortable in all kinds of weather without sacrificing design.

Let’s not forget that we need a reason to get out and about in the first place.

  • Even with the help of God (Ditka), Chicago can’t make the Alps out the of flat expanse of the Great Plaines, so let’s not hold out for great skiing. Still there are many mountain-less winter sports (Skijoring anybody?). Maybe, HOCKEY! Encouraging kids and adults alike to don skates and hit the ice should be no task here. Meanwhile, establishing a little league outdoor hockey à la summer baseball leagues gets kids staying active outdoors all year. Imagine, a little league championship in Millennium Park below the Bean every February.


    Okay, so maybe we won’t get much urban cross country skiing on city streets, but the sport shouldn’t be excluded from urban forest preserves and bike trails.

  • Forest preserves certainly have to be a part of this winter wonderland. Many are criss-crossed by off-street bike trails and while keeping street routes clear in winter remains important, these mostly recreational trails could instead be maintained as cross country ski routes, thus diversifying the types of sports available to Chicagoans all year.
  • New projects by forest preserve and park districts (done right) could also increase green/natural space and recreational opportunities. New land near existing preserves could be acquired for expansion and also to build things like artificial hills for public skiing and in the summer mountain biking; meanwhile, land for new forests, prairies, and flood plains can double as snow mobile trails in winter and hiking paths in the summer.
  • But none of these activities are half as fun without food or drink. Chicago does a great job during for the holiday season with the German Christkindlmarkt. Add the festive air and people want to be outside. It’s a concept to capitalize on! This ranges from neighborhood holiday markets, to scaled down markets serving the essentials (warm food and drinks), to markets in parks with ice skating rinks, or vendors to substitute where parklets go in the summer. These are the small attractions needed to establish winter outdoor gatherings spots.

The Cathedral of St. Paul, all lit up and dressed up for the Crashed Ice competition, in St. Paul, MN. While some cities might use winter recreation opportunities as an excuse to expand green/natural areas others fully integrate them into their urban geography. (Source: Pioneer Press, Andy Rathbun)

There is good in taking the plunge (polar plunge?) and moving ahead with more winter programs: a happier and healthier community because of more year-round exercise, stronger community bounds developed through public gatherings, and the economic output resulting from new entrepreneurial opportunities and both seasonal and permanent jobs.

Plus, private enterprises can take part. Why not encourage an expansion of the NHL’s Winter Classic from only one game to two or three a season? What about regional version’s of the Winter Classic? Red Bull is known for sponsoring alternative sporting activities (ice boating competitions on Chicago’s frozen harbors anybody?).

A little effort and the winter becomes a much more bearable, indeed enjoyable, experience worth embracing. Many cold weather cities are already showing a great amount of creativity; and, getting into a positive mindset about winter is part of this move towards enjoying winter (something that can apparently get people in even the most extreme cities through). There’s no value in letting a pessimistic outlook get in the way creative experimentation.

At least I can think of one way to help pay for all this too: remember those tickets for enforcing shoveling…