A well-travelled friend once told me that Saskatoon and northern Saskatchewan were the greatest places on Earth to be in the summer and the world’s worst places to live in the winter.
How much I agree with him depends on the wind chill.
Winters here are long and dreary, and they last from October until May some years. Not only does the snow linger, for many of us, the winter mindset dominates our thinking on all sorts of policies and decisions even during the heat of summer.
We argue about new ideas for the city all of the time. “We can’t have bike lanes because it snows half the year.” “The winter is too long to waste money on a pedestrian bridge.” “Money on parks is wasted because they never get used in the winter.”
There is much we don’t do because of this white stuff – even when we are complaining about the heat in the summer.
Other cities aren’t held captive to winter in the same way.
Many Nordic cities with far worse winters than ours have excellent bike infrastructure and keep the trails cleared year-round.
Edmonton struck a committee last year to help manage winters better.
I am not sure if I agree with the approach that Winnipeg and Calgary have taken with elevated walkways, but I was able to walk all over Winnipeg in -40 C temperatures with only a light jacket.
A report prepared for the Minneapolis-St. Paul region mentioned that nine of the 10 happiest American states are ones that feature cold winters, and listed examples of cities that do winter really well.
In Germany, Austria, and France, people look forward to outdoor holiday markets where they can find a festive atmosphere along with holiday decorations, seasonal gifts, and warm food and drink.
New York City has imported the idea and has set up massive outdoor markets across Manhattan. Before you scoff at the idea, look at the large crowds that come out in any weather to Wintershines. People will come if you give them reason to do so.
December is easy, but we have to make February tolerable. Winnipeg is doing an excellent job. The city pays a lot more for winter snow and not only can you drive around, the sidewalks are cleared. Imagine being able to drive and get around on foot. It can happen.
Winnipeg has also installed heated bus shelters at a growing number of stops. Even in -40 C with a brutal wind, I was able to take off my tuque, gloves, and unzip my jacket while waiting for a bus.
The city has slowly added winter warming shacks as attractions along its rivers. It started as a local idea, and now gets international attention from architects and designers. Those shacks get you out of the wind and give you an excuse to brave the elements.
No matter the weather, thousands of people are having fun all winter long.
Adding a few warming huts each year would make a cold and windy Saskatoon riverfront a lot more tolerable. It would also help connect the different business districts which are spread out because of our river.
Holiday seasonal markets would also be perfect in the Saskatoon Farmers Market. Who knows? It could even one day expand into something other than a weekend destination.
The first step is not warming huts or outdoor markets, however – it is to convince council to get serious about residential snow removal. And our business improvement districts must get serious about keeping sidewalks clear.
Then it relies on everyone figuring out ways to make winters more enjoyable.
Maybe it’s a restaurant opening its deck on milder days, or community associations holding outdoor parties in the winter, like they do in the summer.
It requires the city looking at ways of making our parks winter-friendly, perhaps with more fire pits, or ensuring bike lanes are cleared all season long.
It’s bus shelters that actually do keep us warm. Once we figure out how to shed the shackles of a cold winter and enjoy it, we will find out that even our summer months can get better.
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We all love the Meewasin Valley but its location makes it cold in the winter. Â The wind whips through the South Saskatchewan River valley and brings either cold or humidity up onto the paths until it chills our bones. Â It’s isn’t that winter friendly.
While Meewasin Valley does do a good job in keep its trails clear of snow (ahem, City of Saskatoon, it is possible), a walk from the Mendel Art Gallery to the Farmer’s Market is enough to make you question your desire to keep living here.
To steal an idea from Winnipeg, how about some warming huts places along the river.
Winnipeg’s huts are designed by architects around the world and are a combination of temporary and year after year structures and they go a long way in making it easier to get out and enjoy the winter in Winnipeg. Â In Saskatoon it would go a long way in allowing us to connect our downtown from the Mendel all of the way to the Saskatoon Farmer’s Market, even in the dead of winter.
- Take the stairs to the top of The Lighthouse at least daily. This seems like a really good idea now that building is only four stories but when the new tower is nine stories this summer, it could be a really bad idea.
- Carry less crap. There are days when I go to work with my DSLR, a video camera, my notebook, a Moleskine, an iPod, and my cell phone. Do I really need that much stuff? Well considering that I have never used all of it in a single day, probably not.
- Ride my bike more. Wendy has a Dave King inspired goal of riding 750 kms this year. I think I will join her although none of those miles will be done at Ice Cycle which I still think is insane, no matter how many people enjoy cycling in â€“40 weather.
- Read more books in 2012. Darryl Dash has a post on how he wants his reading to more focused which I tend to go the other way. I want to read and explore topics that I havenâ€™t explored before, understand new things, and then figure out how they fit together later. In the spirit of Thomas Homer-Dixonâ€™s book The Ingenuity Gap, I want to be a deep generalist. Part of it is the column I write but part of it is cultivating a spirit of curiosity. It may be because I am at a point of life when I have a lot to learn and I donâ€™t have the need to be a specialist.
- Contribute more to the matrix of agencies that I am a part of as a staff member at The Lighthouse. Some of those actions are proprietary but I canâ€™t handle agencies that donâ€™t play that well with others. It comes from an atmosphere of fear and competition that doesnâ€™t need to exist. Hopefully we can model a different way.
- Spend more money locally. Saskatoon Farmerâ€™s Market, Souleio, Broadway Roastery, The Two Twenty, Collective Coffeeâ€¦ you know businesses that are Saskatoon born and bred. Less Starbucks, Tim Hortonâ€™s, and fast food joints.
- Attend more University of Saskatchewan Huskies and Saskatoon Hilltops games. The Huskies may have the best game day experience of any football team in Canada and the Hilltops because of what they did for Markâ€™s understanding of football in 2011. That and all they do is win national championships.
- Post more photos. Despite having a decent camera phone camera, a DSLR, and a pretty good compact camera, I took far too photos in 2011. That needs to change in 2012.
- Keep losing weight in 2012. I lost 40 pounds since my heart event this summer and I want to lose another 120. I should have it lost by next Christmas.
- Listen to more music. I love music but I rarely take time to listen to it. Itâ€™s always a background activity and never a foreground one.
Those are my resolutions. Good luck with yours.
For those of you who missed it, Ice Cycle was two Sundays ago. Itâ€™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 doesnâ€™t enjoy getting taunted and met them with â€“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 Farmerâ€™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 Farmerâ€™s Market could have charged $100 for a cup of coffee and people would have still paid it.
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 donâ€™t think one can make â€“40 liveable or enjoyable. My face froze from the time it took me to walk from the car behind the Farmerâ€™s Market to the front of the Farmerâ€™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 itâ€™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 itâ€™s warm up shack. I remember practicing at â€“30 and it wasnâ€™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 lotâ€™s of stories reminding us about how our parents played outside in â€“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 isnâ€™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 isnâ€™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 Farmerâ€™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 Farmerâ€™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 donâ€™t know if it is economically feasible). The one part of the equation that Hutton doesnâ€™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 Farmerâ€™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 Iâ€™d be okay with that.
Wendy, Mark, Oliver, and I went down to the PotashCorp WinterShines today. It was beyond chilly. With the wind it was â€“35 degrees Celcius which is so cold, it freezes your cheeks so you canâ€™t talk. We wandered around the Saskatoon Farmerâ€™s Market, drank some hot chocolate and coffee, and enjoyed the ice sculptures. It was too cold to try the ice climbing wall and while they said they had horse driven sleigh rides, we didnâ€™t see any but it may have been too cold. The festival lasts until Sunday and this upcoming Saturday there is a battle of the bands and music starting at 7:00 p.m. at the Farmerâ€™s Market. The long term weather forecast has it warming up to freezing on Saturday so weâ€™ll head back then.