Sunday, January 6, 2008

Cultivating the cold

Although I may not always follow the doctor's orders when it comes to getting out and about during the winter as opposed to hibernating, I truly appreciated Jay Wallijasper's column in the Star Tribune today. Wallijasper's prescription is for cities to create great public spaces, programmed with activities (i.e. ice rinks, public markets,) so that going outside is an irresistible option, regardless of freezing temperatures. He talks about places where streetways are colorfully lit, heat lamps adorn the sidewalks, and urban planners focus on designing with sunlight and wind reduction in mind. He quotes Jan Gehl, a planner from Copenhagen, who says:

"Climates differ all over the world," he says. "But people are the same. They will gather in public if you give them a good place to do it."

Love 'em or hate 'em, it's undeniable that the skyways have moved traditional street level activities like dining and shopping and barbers onto the second floor. Pedestrians, who really are the lifeblood of downtowns, are scurrying along in climate-controlled "habitrails" rather than filling sidewalks with vitality.

Gehl describes this phenomenon clearly.
"When you glass in the city, you eliminate the 'bad' days but also all the 'good' days. That is too much of a price to pay. You miss the fresh air, the street life. You may have 20 bad days a year when you want to stay indoors, but 200 good ones you miss. I say you make the city as good as possible for the good days, and that will carry it through on the bad days."
So let's embrace our hale and hardy natures, forgo the skyways, and celebrate the joy of living in a place that has all four seasons. Skate, shop, and stroll on those downtown wintry streets and tell the world, "We're Minnesotans, we live for this!"

To read more on successful winter cities, see Wallijasper's longer article in the Project for Public Spaces recent bulletin.

Image: Skating in front of Landmark Center, St. Paul, photo taken by Jim Gehrz

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