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Cold snap highlights challenges of creating a city for all seasons

There is no easy way to turn the thoroughfares of the winter city into the walkable streets of a summer city.

James Schlafer of Minneapolis dressed warmly for his daily four to five mile walk on Sunday.
Photo by Craig Lassig

In his successful campaign to become mayor of New York City this fall, Bill de Blasio told a “tale of two cities” — one occupied by the fabulously wealthy and the other by those who scrape along on the minimum wage. Betsy Hodges, Minneapolis’ new mayor, echoed that message when she talked about gaps between haves and have-nots. Both newly elected leaders, as well as third-term St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, are hoping to unite the disparate halves of their cities.

But with Minneapolis and St. Paul, there’s another tale of two cities (aside from the obvious fact that they are two cities), and that is the summer city and the winter city. Meshing them without having one undermine the other has been a challenge since both towns were founded. Though dealing with the seasonal cities is a whole lot easier than eliminating poverty, the task is nonetheless complicated.  

The summer city, which at this point exists only in dim memory, is a warm, green place where “every prospect pleases and only man is vile.” At least, that’s the way it seems if you’re walking around Lake of the Isles or taking a boat down the Mississippi on an 80-degree day in July or maybe just sitting at your window gazing at the foliage.   

This is the setting that enables the dream of the walkable city, the one supposedly yearned for by hipster and old-fartster alike, that allows people to navigate on foot or by bike to grocery store, coffee shop, park, library, movie theater and restaurant and to commute to work or school by train, bus or tram.  

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Then there’s the winter city. Excluding bitter cold spells like the one we’re now enduring (the average mean temperature in January is 16 degrees, not -20), winter too has compensations: bright sun on white snow, brisk, dry air and trees wearing ice like diamond necklaces. But even at normal winter temperatures, you are unlikely to find folks window-shopping or strolling. A few hardy souls are bicycling in blizzards, but most of us are hunkered down in our bathrobes calculating how to get from one place to another with minimal exposure to the elements.

Avoiding miseries of winter

Much of the Twin Cities’ planning and architectural efforts over the years have understandably centered on avoiding the miseries of the winter city. Yes, we have a renowned park system, but the transportation system is overwhelmingly devoted to cars, which allow people to travel on their own schedule with the heater blowing full force, a luxury I don’t discount; I still remember waiting an hour or more for the Hennepin Avenue bus in high school with tears freezing on my cheeks.

The winter city enables the vast parking lots that allow cars to decant us close to our destinations in winter but offer bleak, hot panoramas in the summer. In the denser areas of our towns, parking ramps have become the norm, with elevators whisking us up to a floor where we can connect to myriad other buildings via heated skyways.   

With skyways, “The life of the city is removed from the streets and eventually disappears,” writes Jay Walljasper, a senior fellow at the Project for Public Spaces, a New York nonprofit “dedicated to creating and sustaining public places that build communities.” And, of course, he’s right. People aren’t window-shopping or strolling because they aren’t on the streets — they’re in the skyways. And many stores have dispensed with first-floor windows to cut down on heat loss. Consider Block E in downtown Minneapolis. One of the many critiques of the building: it has too few windows and doors. Both features are concessions to the winter city — to keep warmth in and freezing winds out.

In the suburbs, the indoor mall has reigned supreme, and why not? It allows visitors to park cars as close as possible to the building, skate over the tundra and enter a warm interior. The mall developer has in effect created a small city within the city complete with eateries and stores and occasionally even park-like spaces where people can linger or loiter.

Malls in Finland

But what of the exterior? According to Timo Hämäläinen, a Finnish planner and blogger, such malls, which predominate Helsinki (whose climate makes ours look positively sultry) “suck all forms of ‘urban life’ from the surrounding area under its roof with the gravity of a black hole.” He adds, however, that little as he likes the indoor mall, there’s probably no getting rid of it, at least, not in Finland:

…shopping centers and especially shopping malls offer much convenience for us Finns when looked from the climate point of view. Many would and do prefer to stroll from store to store indoors when the option is to do the same in freezing temperatures. Due to our climate it is utopia to call for the complete abandonment of indoor shopping areas…

Sinclair Lewis, who grew up in Sauk Centre, wrote, “Winter is not a season but an occupation,” and, as I remember, he was talking about Minnesota at the time. And so it goes with the winter city. It can’t help but predominate. And, as a result, many of our efforts to create that walkable, street-centered city fall a bit flat.

Take mixed-use development. Yes, it’s lovely to have shops on the first floor of residential buildings. In theory at least, people in the nearby neighborhood will frequent them — but only until the weather turns cold, and the wind whips up to 15 miles an hour. At that point, a five-block walk starts to seem like Ernest Shackleton’s trek to the South Pole, and those living nearby jump in their cars and head for the nearest shopping center. One or two winters later, the stores go under.

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There is no easy way to turn the thoroughfares of the winter city into the walkable streets of a summer city. But one effort underway offers some hope. The Interchange, the transportation hub now under construction near the Twins ballpark, plans to heat its plaza. On days when the mercury heads up in the 20s or 30s, I can envision people sitting there having coffee and maybe watching a street performance or moseying around a crafts fair. (Helsinki, in fact, heats some of its central plazas in the winter. The energy cost, it turns out, is less than shoveling snow.) If it’s successful in drawing crowds, maybe the city should try heating Nicollet mall in its redesign.