…an expanded version of a Streetscapes article for the Star Tribune written during the winter spectacle of the Super Bowl in Minneapolis
Design for the Cold
Winter Streetscapes don’t have to be Bleak—Five strategies for winter character
FRANK EDGERTON MARTIN February 17, 2018
Minnesota promotes itself as the “Bold North”. But our designs for winter streets and public spaces are weak and timid.
We have some of the most dramatic seasonal weather in the country. Summers can be steam baths and wind chills can fall to fifty degrees below zero. But you’d never know it from visiting many grocery store parking lots, bus and transit stops, and even high-design arts and civic projects.
All too often, civic landscapes like the Minneapolis Central Library on Nicollet Mall are designed for perfect weather. They photograph beautifully in the warmer months but are planned with little regard for winter color, texture, and the force of wind. Stepped back from the Nicollet Mall, the Central Library’s main entry plaza bakes in the summer sun. In winter, with its bosque of stark and leafless locust trees in front of Dunn Brothers, the entry is devoid of shelter from the wind.
You can find such bleak winter spaces throughout newer suburbs—in open treeless parking lots with no shelter from the northwest wind, exposed entries to new high schools, big box stores with no windows and the ubiquitous beige earth tones of houses and commercial buildings.
Why do Minnesotans let this happen? The sheltered practicality of Nordic farmsteads, towns, and cities has been lost to American wealth and technological prowess. It’s all too easy to build large climate-controlled settings and car-based cities where few people have to go outside to walk to a store or wait for a bus or train.
But there are time-tested solutions to thrive in winter. Architect David Salmela is a third-generation Finnish-American based in Duluth who combines older ways of building with modern materials for northern climates. Salmela is one of Minnesota’s most celebrated architects—yet he never received a formal architecture degree. His training happened while growing up on the Range.
“My father was born in a sauna,” he says when talking about design for the North. “The biggest lesson from Nordic architecture is to break a building into parts.” Finnish farmsteads consist of many buildings because people build as time and money allow.
“My father was born in a sauna because that was the first and most essential structure the family put up on their land in Vermillion Lake Township. By making several small buildings over time, you can have more windows and sunlight.” Salmela says. Oriented to the arc of the winter sun, such incremental farmsteads also grow to shelter interior courts and work areas. They offer powerful lessons for cities today.
The Twin Cities don’t need to tear out skyway systems to bring more people to the streets. We need more reasons to walk along them such as shops and stores made possible by affordable rents. We also need to learn how to design winter streetscapes as a celebration of all of the senses.
Here are five strategies to consider…..
1. Understand the Movement of Sun and Wind
Salmela describes how Finnish towns and cities are filled with buildings wrapped around interior courtyards and protected passageways, accessible from the street. In the Twin Cities, we can’t change the orientation of our downtown streets, but we can create sheltered outdoor rooms for a retreat from gusting winds.
Sometimes simple wind-blocking walls or glass panels can do the trick to optimize solar gain. Ideally, sheltered microclimates can be located on the north side of city streets where they catch the low winter sun. At the civic scale, Salmela cites Senate Square in Helsinki as an example where all of these elements come together. Set atop a hill, the Helsinki Cathedral looks south and into the harbor. University buildings shelter the plaza below. With their vistas, sun, and shelter, the Cathedral’s broad front steps are a nationally-known place for gathering.
2. Plant for Winter Character
Forget the locusts, the re-design of Nicollet Mall shows a wealth of trees and shrubs that are beautiful and rich in winter character. Field Operations, the landscape architects from Philadelphia introduced several plantings, such as indigenous Eastern Red Cedars and Red Twig Dogwoods rarely seen downtown. Winter color and berries can often come from understory plantings such as tall native and ornamental grasses and a variety of berry-retaining viburnums.
3. Create Beacons of Light for Long Nights
In cold climates when it gets dark by mid-afternoon, fire and light are an ancient lure. Salmela describes the welcoming quality of glowing storefront windows and displays along Nordic streets. Warm glowing colors in signs, spotlighting, and illuminated public art can also highlight architectural detail and create variety block to block.
4. Winter Fragrances and Atmosphere
Think of the moments when you discover the smells of wood smoke while on a neighborhood walk or visiting a city park. They wake us up and change our mood. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire have such a memorable effect that they merited a song. From food trucks to street vendors, we can bring these winter scents to cities.
5. Color is our Winter Friend
Why are we so afraid of color? In the Powderhorn neighborhood, several Mexican-American businesses are painted in bold yellows and reds. In Finland, David Salmela notes the presence of architectural color too, “but with more subtle ochers and orange tones.” On the southern edge of to Gold Medal Park, Salmela designed the headquarters for Izzy’s Ice Cream as a counterpoint to the Guthrie Theatre. Izzy’s is a mostly white low-slung building punctuated with bold patches of color that not only help to meet city code for façade variation but also visually sparkle—especially in winter when we need it most of all.