Cold snap highlights challenges of creating a city for all seasons

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

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.  

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.

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.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Pat McGee on 01/07/2014 - 11:51 am.

    The Interchange

    Interesting that the plaza will be heated. Perhaps you can do a column with more details about the Interchange. What will protect people from the massive wind tunnel that the area is?

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/07/2014 - 12:37 pm.

    Meanwhile

    “…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.”

    Let’s take another look at the design for the new state senate office building, shall we? To encase the structure in glass is to stick taxpayers with huge energy bills to keep what are (or at least should be) temporary employees heated and cooled without regard to cost. I’ll be adding some more weatherstripping to my front door before next winter after this winter’s cold snap. Xcel and CenterPoint spend a lot of money and time trying to educated consumers about smart energy use, yet the architects of the proposed state senate building appear to think this place is subtropical, but cloudy.

    Meanwhile, what Ms. Harris points out is a genuine conundrum for the 6 months or so when sitting on a park bench, reading, is not something to be done in either of the Twin Cities without plenty of warm clothing.

  3. Submitted by Janne Flisrand on 01/07/2014 - 01:54 pm.

    Windows disappeared for winter-friendly design?

    I found the same quote Ray highlighted odd.

    “…it has too few windows and doors. Both features are concessions to the winter city — to keep warmth in and freezing winds out.”

    As someone who works with a lot of building designers on developing energy efficient buildings, I’m perplexed at this assertion of cause and effect. There are plenty of design strategies that do not force this choice, so I’m wondering why you picked THAT as the reason. It much more logically follows that it’s a response to car-centric design.

  4. Submitted by Dimitri Drekonja on 01/07/2014 - 03:39 pm.

    I’m a bit puzzled by this. The neighborhood shops around my area (50th and Lyndale) are full, regardless of season. My walk to the grocery store or south lyndale liquors has never occurred without encountering other pedestrians, no matter the hour. The only time this winter there was a noticeable decrease in customers was the night of a big snow, when we walked to the Malt Shop– a night when going on foot was the only way to ensure you arrived at your destination. I don’t see too much evidence of the city shutting down in the winter months– and I don’t see any objective evidence of it in this article either– just statements asserting that we’re all hunkered in bathrobes awaiting spring, and that winter is killing off the small shops of the city.

    This runs contrary to what I see every day, and it also tries to link two things that happen with regularity: small shops closing and the change of seasons. True, true, and unrelated (or at least not proven to be related here). Last I checked, small retailers fail in places like Miami and San Diego, too.

  5. Submitted by Elsa Mack on 01/07/2014 - 04:56 pm.

    This article does identify a challenge that we face in terms of design needs, but as others have said, it seems like a huge exaggeration to suggest that everyone gives up and drives to the mall for six months. People still walk, still take the bus, still shop around their own neighborhoods in winter. Less when it’s below zero, sure, but that’s not the norm.

    The arguments against skyways from people who live in more temperate climates never cease to annoy me. Minneapolis doesn’t (andc shouldn’t) look like New York because it’s not New York; it’s colder and has different needs. Is that so difficult to understand? The skyways are a big boon to downtown in winter. I know a few retired people who have moved downtown precisely because the skyways make it a snow-free, easily walkable neighborhood year-round. There’s still strolling and window-shopping going on. It’s just happening one floor up.

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