Oh, The Weather Outside is Frightful! But the City is So Delightful!

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: weather–winter weather especially–should not be a major player in determining where people live. It is high time cold climate cities embrace the winter as an asset and chide it. This discussion may become an annual tradition on this blog (I wrote about it last year too); so, as long as the annual threat by Northerners to move mid-winter continues, so will my call for a more positive mentality towards the chillier months–and in this installment for better design for the winter.

In the previous post about winter I focused on a mix of methods to improve a residents’ experience of our cold climate city. (This was done with help from the Project for Public Spaces.) Suggestions ranged from incorporating winter markets into the seasonal calendar of events to creating little league hockey and other winter sports opportunities.

The suggestions weren’t entirely focused around a single theme. After getting back to Chicago this year, I re-recognized the importance of design in getting residents through the winter. Most of this realization happened using the “L”, which is where most Chicagoans probably get extended exposure to the winter elements. This, and walking and biking mid-winter in the city.

The weather is made uncomfortable mostly due to wind and snow. In a city like Chicago it is hard to avoid both. It’s called ‘lake effect’ and the Great Plains. There is nothing to stop or slow any inclement weather. Sadly, the design of a lot of the city’s public spaces and amenities doesn’t seem to account for this. And in terms of design, this is what the Chicago needs to begin considering.

So, to make winter all the more lovely in Chicago there are three areas where design holds the solutions: transit stations, sidewalks and bike lanes, and parks.

  • Transit has to be made weather proof. It is insane that the CTA and Chicago’s DOT haven’t made it a standard policy to build stations that includes weather proofing. Chicago is unique having a rapid transit system that is almost entirely above ground; or, at least this is unique among cold climate cities. Yet, station design doesn’t reflect this reality. While the airy elevated stations are great in the summer, they don’t hold up in the winter.
    • Use the Cermak-McCormick Place Green Line station as a design model for future stations and renovations. The station, wrapped in a tube like structure, protects passengers from the elements while waiting for trains. While it isn’t enclosed fully to keep it heated, it keeps passengers dry and moderately warm.
    • Install glass windows along Blue and Red Line stops in the medians of highways. The canopies of many of these stations (e.g. Harlem and Cumberland Blue Line stops) are ideally designed to allow such installations. This would not only help keep platforms insulated from the weather, but lessen noise caused by traffic passing so close to the platforms.
    • The same applies to stairwells along segments of other L lines. Enclosing them in glass would go a long way to improve the station experience while allowing light in still. Take the Brown Line: most of the stairwells at the Brown Line’s elevated stations are only enclosed with fencing. This allows snow and ice to build up on the stairs making for wet and dangerous ascents to and descents from platforms. Put up impermeable walls and problem solved.
    • Invest in bus stops that actually keep the weather at bay. The CTA’s JCDecaux bus stops are purely aesthetic and fail on a functional level. The gaps between the glass walls and roofs let in snow and rain and the open fourth side lets wind and cold in easily. A good example of a weather proof bus stop were those I’ve seen in Winnipeg. It was enclosed on all four sides and included an easy to push open swinging glass door to keep the weather at bay.
  • winnipeg-bus-stop

    This bus stop in Winnipeg is fully enclosed. This design could also include ticket machines or be incorporated into prepaid boarding schemes. 

    Using permeable pavement is another solution to deal with snow and ice. Shoveling, or lack thereof, is an annoyance for pedestrians and cyclists in Chicago. Bike lanes only get partially cleared and crosswalks are usually blocked by piles of snow, ice, and sludge kicked up by snow plows. This decreases the likelihood of winter biking and causes inconveniences and safety concerns. According to a Water Environment Federation report on porous pavement the amount of salt needed to keep streets and sidewalks clear of ice decreases where porous pavement is used. It also lowers the amount of black ice that appears since water can drain before refreezing when it melts. Porous pavements should become standard in areas that are difficult to clear including bike lanes, parking lanes, pedestrian crossings and intersections. It is no silver bullet to snow build up, but the easier it is for snow and ice to clearance, the better.

  • While the Project for Public Spaces is right for pointing out that using skywalks and underground pedestrian walkways can backfire by lessening the value of outdoor spaces they are in and of themselves not worth dismissing. In cities like Chicago, Montréal, and Minneapolis the winter weather can be extreme and there is value in keeping people inside on the worst days. The question is whether these passages are designed to connect with their respective cities. Chicago needs to renovate its pedestrian passage way, which covers a significant area of the Loop and employ better signage in addition to other aesthetic improvements. A particular focus should be made on a single aesthetic identity and ensuring users know where they are in relation to the city above. Montréal’s Ville Souterraine is a prime example of how to maintain a balance between indoor and outdoor spaces. The system connects major institutions and the Métro and throughout the system opens into light filled galleries and atriums that connect back to street level.
  • Green spaces play a vital role in improving how we experience winter cities. Design firm Perkins + Will lays out a number of suggestions for improving outdoor life in cold cities. This ranges from designing to maximize winter sunlight and creating new waterfront recreational opportunities with parks that connect residents to rivers and lakes, but also block wind. In North American cities where grids are the dominant street form another way to achieve this is by capping streets throughout the grid creating parklets at dead-ended streets that provide new public spaces and can be planted with large trees to block and slow wind. Such parklets shouldn’t be restricted to areas along water, since streets along a grid channel can wind for longer distances. I can say the worst wind I experience biking is on an uninterrupted east-west street on Chicago’s Far Northwest Side far from any water.

Before I wrote this I was sitting in a café in Madison in a newly built building. The café had floor to ceiling windows that must have been 15 feet high. They let in plenty of light, but mid-winter in a city surrounded by three lakes, where the wind, snow, and cold can be intense the lack of context struck me. The large windows did not keep out the cold. The only thing you needed to do to figure that out was come inside. Design trends have become so ubiquitous that any context seems to have disappeared. How silly that is. Design for the winter and we might all be a little warmer year round.

2 thoughts on “Oh, The Weather Outside is Frightful! But the City is So Delightful!

  1. Michael,

    What a fascinating column—and thought-provoking! I endorse all of your suggestions, especially the one about clearing walkways and bikeways of snow. That should be a priority for property owners and the city.

    I admit that in recent years, I’ve become very disenchanted with winter weather, but I think that’s primarily a function of my medical issues. Take those out of the equation, and I would be a strong supporter of the need to embrace winter weather, and even get out into it. That’s why I’m so intrigued by your idea about winter markets and other outdoor events and greater park use.

    We need to find a way for you to get paid for your excellent and thoughtful writing.

    Dad

    • I don’t think you were in Freiburg or Vienna at the right time ever, but winter markets occur literally all season. It seems like as soon as the advent markets come down the Lent markets are going up. It makes a huge difference.

      I love the idea of exploring baseball style little league’s for hockey too (previous article). Unfortunately in Chicago the city doesn’t enforce snow clearance well, although it’d be a huge money maker.

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