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Making Saskatoon a Winter City

Saskatoon's Ice Cycle 2011For those of you who missed it, Ice Cycle was two Sundays ago.  It’s basically an event where hard core cyclists taunt the weather and risk getting pneumonia while going for a bike ride in extreme cold.  Mother Nature doesn’t enjoy getting taunted and met them with –40 degree weather.

Now personally I think each and every participant in Ice Cycle should have been given a court ordered psychiatric examination for going for a recreational bike ride in that weather but I love being in a city where these kind of events are held.  We were at the Saskatoon Farmer’s Market shortly after the ride and it was packed with bike riders trying to warm up and thaw out their cheeks enough to complete full sentences.  Wendy joked that the coffee vendors at the Farmer’s Market could have charged $100 for a cup of coffee and people would have still paid it.

Dave Hutton asks Is Saskatoon a Winter City and explores some ideas with city councillor Charlie Clark.

Much of the city’s architecture is bland, a hodge podge of styles that don’t represent the climate or lift spirits when the sky is overcast. Office towers and taller downtown buildings trap wind and throw it on to the sidewalk or cast shadows and block the sun.

There remains a dire lack of covered bus shelters and it often takes long periods of time to clear snow from bus stops, forcing people to wait on the street. Those who congregate at the downtown bus mall must seek refuge in stores on bitterly cold days.

Snowstorms are a nuisance, winter a plague.

"I think people view winter as an endurance test," said Coun. Charlie Clark in an interview at the Saskatoon Farmer’s Market, where a modest afternoon crowd of young families played on the ice slide and ice ping pong table while admiring snow sculptures.

"As a prevailing kind of perception, winter is something that you get through."

Last year, Clark brought forward the idea of freezing the South Saskatchewan River for winter recreation through diverting the warm water expelled from the Queen Elizabeth Power Station into a district heating system.

This week, he trudged down to the river’s edge south of the power station to show the idea is feasible. There, numerous tracks can be seen across the river and snowmobiles heard farther south. At its edge, where the ice breaks to reveal its depth, at least two metres of thick ice is revealed.

There are engineering problems to overcome, but at its root the idea is a way to bring life to what can be a depressing time -to live with the climate, not in spite of it, Clark said.

In many northern European cities, businesses have made efforts to extend the outdoor season for socializing and cafe-sitting by using overhead freestanding heaters and offering blankets, cushions and sheepskins on public benches, Clark said.

I don’t think one can make –40 liveable or enjoyable.  My face froze from the time it took me to walk from the car behind the Farmer’s Market to the front of the Farmer’s Market while on Saturday we went down and I was wearing a fleece jacket and felt fine.  While I enjoyed both trips down, I enjoyed one trip a whole lot more.  Despite the weather, I think there are some things that Saskatoon can do to make it more winter friendly and I think it has more to do with cold weather civic zoning and setbacks.  I think part of it has to do with us rediscovering living in our communities and it’s something that we have lost.

Growing up in Lawson Heights, the rink behind Lawson Heights School was always open and cleared off with the mud room of the school being opened up by the community association.  There were often nights when hot chocolate was served.  Playing minor hockey, we had several season of practice behind the old Wilson School in City Park because of it’s warm up shack.  I remember practicing at –30 and it wasn’t a big deal.  We had a lot of breaks in the warming shack, there was hot chocolate for us, coffee for the parents, and lot’s of stories reminding us about how our parents played outside in –80 degree cold while sharing half the rink with hungry polar bears. 

Those games and practices were replaced with ice time at Gemini 4 arenas.  The food was better and the locker rooms bigger but so were the fees and within a short time kids stopped learning to play hockey at the local rink but rather learned the game from EA Sports.

I remember what a hassle it was to keep the Lawson Heights School warm up shack open which is why I am so impressed that the Mayfair/Hudson Bay Park Community Association has opened up the warming shack at Henry Kelsey School for public skating.  Mark uses it a fair bit and we do pilgrimage a couple of times a winter down to the Meewasin skating rink beside the Bessborough Hotel.

I am not sure that I am on board with the idea of freezing the South Saskatchewan River solid but some heaters on the Meewasin Trail at strategic points (near the washrooms at Lawson Heights, the Weir, the Mendel Art Gallery dock, behind the Bessborough, and a couple along winter landing, as well as some along the east side of the river south of the university would be a nice touch).  Some heated bus shelters would also be a great step in actually getting people out of the house and using city transit.  As the article says, the bus mall isn’t exactly winter friendly but for as bad as that it, several stops are in front of open areas that have no shelter from the wind (or sun in the summer) in any direction.  Sean Shaw has another idea that is worth looking into and that is doing what is popular in many cities and that is creating a Blackberry/Android/iPhone/Ovi/web app that allows one to track in real time where city busses are.  Regina has rolled out a web version but once the data is there, creating the apps isn’t that hard.  Their system even allows for SMS updates which is fantastic for the non-smartphone segment of the market.

Finally at WinterShines, it showed that there is a demand for a place for people to congregate and be social in the winter.  The Farmer’s Market was a perfect spot for that and hopefully a profitable time for the merchants (including the vendor who charged Wendy $2 for a watered down hot chocolate made from nothing from a bit of Carnation Hot Chocolate and water from the dish washer hose and sold me a coffee that was so stale that I tossed it out) who saw an increase in crowds looking at their wares.  City Council has asked the Saskatoon Farmer’s Market to stay open for longer days and hours in the past and I would love to see that come true (at work we head down quite often and sadly we are sometimes the only ones down there for lunch so I don’t know if it is economically feasible).  The one part of the equation that Hutton doesn’t bring up is the almost mythical River Landing Village (or whatever Victory Major Investments is going to call it).  You have the possibility there of having three winter friendly locations all within walking distance of each other (Meewasin Skating Rink, River Landing Village, Saskatoon Farmer’s Market).  While it will take some time, there is the chance that higher density in the south downtown core could really reinvent our public spaces downtown making what once was a one week festival into a winter long playground and I think I’d be okay with that.

3 Comments

  1. […] I mentioned in my last post, Wendy, Mark, Oliver and I went down to the Saskatoon Farmer’s Market for PotashCorp WinterShines […]

  2. Flavio says:

    Good post Jordon!

    I was glad to take part in the WinterShines’ IceCycle and yesterday’s Escape Sport / Loki Games, and wow was I surprised with the atmosphere. There were so many people out there during both events. People were Ice Climbing, playing in the small ice sheet and slide, and just hanging out having some hot beverages and smoked burgers. It was vibrant and it felt like I was in a Winter village with a strong community feel, regardless of the cold weather!

    There is a want and need to embrace the Winter in our city, and all we need is a little nudge and reminder of what can be done to have some fun out there. WinterShines has become my favorite Saskatoon festival.

    I use to dread the Winter months, but since embracing it I have come to love them “almost” as much as the few summer months.

  3. […] If you really wanted to go all out, you could use some of Charlie Clark’s ideas to make the city more liveable in winter and heat the shelter during the winter.  As I wrote before, I was amazed that even in –40 […]

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