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How to Make the Most of Covid Winter

Don’t write off the darkest season just yet. Even with colder weather and shorter days, it’s still possible to plan for pandemic-safe outdoor fun.

How to Make the Most of Covid Winter

Don’t write off the darkest season just yet. Even with colder weather and shorter days, it’s still possible to plan for pandemic-safe outdoor fun.

relates to How to Make the Most of Covid Winter

Andrea Chronopoulos

relates to How to Make the Most of Covid Winter

Andrea Chronopoulos

In Victorian England, the baked potato had dual purposes. Sold from street-side “cans” — metal boxes on four legs, with charcoal-fueled fire pots within — the potatoes could be used as hand-warmers when tucked inside a mitten or muff, or body warmers when consumed on the spot as a hot and filling snack. Potato sellers by the hundreds set up cans on London streets, selling their wares from August to April, as ubiquitous as today’s ice cream trucks but serving the opposite season. 

Buyers and sellers of those spuds had little choice but to be out on the streets, whatever the weather. That’s where the business was, that’s where workers could buy a quick meal, that’s where friends might encounter each other, standing close to the can for warmth. A little food, a little fire, a little chat — these elements made being outdoors in winter bearable.

A hot potato is a small gesture against the elements. But it is also inexpensive, portable, requires minimal setup to cook and comes in its own wrapper. For the winter ahead, American cities need a lot more ideas like the baked potato: pop-up comforts, at many scales, that can gather a crowd outdoors and ensure people get the sun and socialization they need. Don’t write off the darkest season before it even begins. What if cities took their cues from the Victorians, and made no retreat from the elements? What if we spent Covid winter outside … and enjoyed it?

As CBC reported in early August, “Summer, in comparison, is easy.” In a story titled “The Winter Will Be Worse,” The Atlantic used words like “bleak,” “unpleasant,” and “dismal” to describe chilly gatherings and the difficulty of halting transmission if people take their social gatherings inside. But illuminated sunset walks, invigorating bike rides, and hot chocolate by the fire pit don’t sound so terrible. 

With wildfires in the Western U.S. and heat waves across the South, it’s a stretch for Americans to start thinking about winter. But now is the time to think ahead. Many of the activities that have been keeping people in cities safe and sane since March — walks, bike rides, stoop gatherings, and park picnics — will literally take on a different hue as temperatures drop, the wind picks up and the sun sets at 5 p.m. Urban winter in the many parts of the U.S. can take cues from counties with snowy slopes — but also from other cultures used to dealing with cold.

Scientists remain divided on why winter is flu season in the Northern Hemisphere, but two of the most popular hypotheses are increased time spent in sealed indoor environments and a lack of sunlight, which compromises the immune system. Covid may work the same way, meaning that in 2020 we have two viral reasons to stay outdoors rather than one.

“The story I always tell about our winter city strategy, was that we, not just in Edmonton but across North America, felt we could respond to winter by making it go away,” says Ben Henderson, councillor for Ward 8 on the Edmonton City Council and one of the authors of the city’s seven-year-old WinterCity initiative. “You got up in the morning and it was probably dark, you connected to your vehicle without going outside, you went to the pedway and ate lunch without going outdoors. We were never getting direct sunlight or fresh air and then we wondered why we became depressed.”

Edmonton is among Canada’s coldest cities — though it is a dry cold — with January temperatures reaching as low as 3 degrees Fahrenheit. So the idea was: If you can enjoy January outdoors there, you can enjoy it anywhere. By making it easier to get to work, play outside and find things to do outside the home, the WinterCity Strategy targeted both physical and mental health. By 2017, 44% of respondents to a WinterCity survey said their perception of winter in Edmonton had become more positive. U.S. cities have months, rather than years, to do the same for Covid winter, but the strategies shouldn’t be that different. It has become clear that the safest place to be with other people is outdoors, and we can learn from winter cities how to keep the good times (literally) rolling.

If Summer 2020 made best-sellers out of such backyard pleasures as potting soil, inflatable pools and sidewalk chalk, Winter 2020 should see a run on long underwear, fire pits and faux fur cushions. Edmonton’s WinterCity website includes actionable toolkits at multiple scales, starting with winter fashion. Dress in layers, invest in silk and wool long underwear, get over your prejudice against parkas. Many people do this as a matter of course when gearing up for a day of skiing or a turn around the ice rink. But in cities, people dress for the destination, not the journey. “People dress saying, I’m going from my home to this business. What’s the least amount of clothing I can wear for the tolerance of walking x feet?” says Simon O’Byrne, senior vice president of community development for global design consultancy Stantec. “We have to switch that, and dress to loiter.”

O’Byrne, who is also co-chair of the WinterCity Advisory Council, adds, “Stickiness encourages people outside. Moscow does year-round farmers markets. The artists’ community has been pulverized by Covid. As much as we can, we should embrace things to help the local artists, community.” He suggests commissioning visual artists to illuminate dark spaces, via murals or light installations, and hiring musicians for distanced outdoor concerts. 

Cities should also invest in places to loiter. All of those outdoor restaurants that are supporting local businesses and bringing liveliness back to the streets? In New York City, at least, they are scheduled to shut down at the end of October, while the mayor and governor bicker over indoor dining. But cities need to catch up to ski areas, which long ago figured out how to make après ski activities like outdoor bars and music venues as much of an attraction as the slopes. Wind breaks (with openings above and below for ventilation), patio heaters and sun orientation can all take outdoor dining further into 2020. WinterCity’s Four Season Patio Design Tips also include higher insulation value materials, like wood or straw bales rather than metal seating, as well as simple solutions like blankets, which offer customers the winter equivalent of being able to reposition your chair in the sun — though that works year-round.

If you are lucky enough to have an outdoor space of your own, you can winter-proof that too. Maura Rockcastle, principal of Minneapolis landscape and urban design practice TEN x TEN, is already adapting one client’s sunken stone gathering space for the coming season, since that is where they have been doing most of their socializing this summer, by adding wood furniture and evening lighting around the existing gas fire. The space is already screened by birch trees for privacy, but they have the additional advantage of cutting wind.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for small mobile amenities,” Rockcastle adds, suggesting hot food trucks and mobile saunas. In Minnesota, for example, after a day of ice fishing in a small, often poorly ventilated shanty, people sometimes gather by the lake for chilly but fresh-air barbecues. What if you could transfer that idea of end-of-day outdoor communal meals to gathering around a sauna, or a hot chocolate bar? Rockcastle asks. Since 2003, the Loppet Foundation has sponsored an annual winter festival in Minneapolis that includes Luminary Loppet, a candlelit night on Lake of the Isles where participants can walk, snowshoe, or ski the illuminated route. It is so popular that visitors already needed timed “waves” for the start, pre-social distancing.

Winter fun at the annual Loppet Winter Festival on frozen Lake Of The Isles, Minneapolis, Minnesota
People walk on the frozen Lake Of The Isles during Minneapolis’s Loppet Winter Festival.
Photographer: GeorgePeters/iStockphoto

Minneapolis is not the only U.S. city that was already invested in winter community-building. When I wrote about how U.S. cities should learn from our northern neighbor for Curbed in 2019, urban nonprofit 8 80 Cities had just launched its Wintermission program, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Global Ideas Fund at CAF America, with a goal to reduce winter social isolation. After that story was published, 8 80 Cities collected community feedback in its three selected cities, Leadville, Colorado; Eau Claire, Wisconsin; and Buffalo, New York. 

“Snow removal and management was a common concern across the cities,” says David Simor, senior project manager at 8 80 Cities. “It is really hard to engage in social and physical activity outdoors if you can’t get outdoors.” But there was also local context: Eau Claire has a large Hmong community, with a lot of older adults. They reported that they weren’t seeing their culture represented in so-called traditional winter activities, and that equity barriers such as uncleared sidewalks and limited public transportation in the evening prevented their participation. In the warmer months, Hmong elders often garden for exercise and companionship. “One of the ideas to come out of this process was working with Hmong community associations and other local stakeholders to create winter greenhouses,” Simor says.

“Covid has brought to the surface the exact same problems around social isolation Wintermission was created to address,” says Simor. “The same communities hit hard because they had not planned for winter were hit hard by Covid.” This includes communities that, by virtue of race, income and age, didn’t have the same access to outdoor spaces, community centers and the economic resources necessary for many outdoor sports.  

Simor sees promise in a number of successful Wintermission pilot projects, all of which would allow the kinds of outdoor activity that flourished this summer to continue. Eau Claire has a three- to four-mile winter recreational loop that connects its downtown to the sizable University of Wisconsin campus; it was prioritized for snow plowing so that it remained clear throughout the winter. Clearing pedestrian and bike routes will be particularly important this winter, as the pandemic has prompted a “mobility shift” in many cities away from public transit. 

“People are filling the gap with cycling, walking, scootering,” O’Byrne says. “We have to continue this momentum into winter” by building protected bike networks, keeping sidewalks clear, and creating well-lit and sheltered routes on narrower streets or in alleys with built-in wind protection. Brooklyn-based Good Company Bike Club, which set up its first group ride via Instagram Stories in May, “was born out of the boredom of quarantine,” says founder Andrew Bennett. “Cycling is the perfect balance of wanting to exercise, wanting to socialize and wanting to isolate.” Bennett and his e-board (Shari Brown, Marv Marcel and Milly Louis) plan to keep the events going into the cold months, and want to raise money for the club (free to date) by selling branded hoodies, masks and sweats to keep riders warm.

relates to How to Make the Most of Covid Winter
Mobile saunas like this on in Estonia could become a gathering spot for outdoor meals. 
Photographer: Michal Fludra/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Snow clearance has become an ongoing political issue for winter cities, with disabled people, the elderly, and parents and caregivers arguing that sidewalks and crossings deserve the same priority as cars, lest people be essentially trapped in their homes. Many physically disabled people have already had their mobility limited during quarantine due to pre-existing health risks, the inability to avoid using elevators and the difficulty of maintaining social distancing. Temporary urban design changes also need to be inclusive. 

Gabrielle Peters, a multiply disabled wheelchair user and writer, is a former member of the City of Vancouver's Active Transportation and Policy Council. She says, “I’m a big advocate for widening sidewalks. Sidewalks shouldn’t just be so that you can get from place to place. They are a place to socialize, to move at different speeds, to let a toddler look at the grass.” Among the proposals in New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer’s recent report on saving the city’s “Main Streets” was a call for expanding sidewalks in commercial corridors, and getting garbage off the sidewalks. The expanded pedestrian zones would also accommodate street vendors (here’s where the baked potatoes reappear), public bathrooms and seating that doesn’t require a purchase. 

“We also need large overhangs and roofed areas with heaters in public space (not just restaurant patios) where people can gather. Respiratory conditions such as asthma are quite common and cold air can be a trigger,” Peters says. “There is also the concern these changes will reduce accessibility for disabled people depending on how they are designed and operated. There are expanded brunch options for people with funds to eat in privatized and often inaccessible public space that encroaches onto and lessens sidewalk accessibility. It seems every urbanist’s favorite option is taking away parking space. If we remove the accessible parking spaces, we remove the people who use them from public space. Some people need cars to get around.”

Wintermission’s Simor says that any blueprint for Covid winter should be expansive enough to include families. “When we are doing engagement, children have the most positive feelings about winter. What are we doing wrong that we lose that?” he says. S’mores kits proved to be a popular way to get families to linger in parks in the winter, at a relatively low cost, along with working with municipal fire departments to make them more comfortable with the idea of public fire pits. “A lot of public parks do have barbecue areas. If you take that same thinking, and allow fire pits, rather than only being used three or four months of the year you can use them 12 months of the year.” 

Outdoor winter activities are only as safe as any outdoor activity and, as summer exposed the impact of the unequal distribution of parks in Black and Latinx communities and the disparate effect of open streets in low-income communities, efforts to create social spaces outside have to acknowledge local conditions that may include violence, crime and drug use, as well as the over-policing of Black and Brown communities. Marc Miller, a landscape architect and professor at Penn State, recalls taking the bus in winter in the Twin Cities, and how the bus shelters there weren’t big enough to protect people with shopping carts who didn’t have cars at home to go grocery shopping. 

“It is part of the process: How do you make spaces that are accommodating that actually work for your user group, provide them with what they need to be comfortable, and then how is it not seen as a threat to other people? If there are six people over there in parkas, is that a threat?” Miller points out that even design renderings of winter activities often lack Black scalies (figures who populate architectural designs). “That creates a gap of imagination of how Black people and people of color use spaces in the winter.”

One of my favorite ideas for celebrating winter came from Twitter handwringing about new Covid clusters popping up on college campuses. “What if instead of shaming college students for going to parties we tried to provide them with a a realistic framework for getting their social needs met as safely as possible in the spirit of harm reduction,” Angie Schmitt, author of the recently published Right of Way: Race, Class, and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America, asked rhetorically. This is the Winter 2020 question in a nutshell: What if instead of scolding people for their social needs, we got understanding, and then we got creative? 

Eric Keller responded, “Nobody at Penn State is taking me up on my idea to have (masked) nightly dance parties on the student union lawn.” 

If you can have a silent disco, why not a dance party with parkas, masks and fire pits? Bring on the baked potato.