New Design Center Makes Cold Weather Cool

  • Image: Chris Zimmer

On the whole, Clevelanders get all Brothers of the Night’s Watch in winter, enduring inclement conditions with a stony, martyr-like resolve (and lots of booze and layers). But guess what? WINTER DOESN’T HAVE TO SUCK. It can be full of community-oriented merrymaking, like putting snow in other people's underwear and pelting children with ice-cored snowballs.

Or. Or! Transforming our blighted ice fortress into a winter wonderland, thanks to the cool folks at Kent State's Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative (CUDC).

CUDC just launched COLD (Center for Outdoor Living Design), an initiative that aims to curate and implement urban design projects adapted to the demands of a cold-weather city. According to the project’s organizers, there’s a myopic and limiting warm-weather bias in the field of urban planning, even in cities (like Cleveland) that only enjoy it for, oh, four months out of the year. As the program’s website argues:

Representations and design strategies in architecture and urban design are often dominated by idealized imagery from warmer seasons, marginalizing the unique design opportunities that winter weather cities present. As a result, creative approaches to improving urban livability during winter are left unexplored, reinforcing common perceptions that public life can’t survive outdoors for much of the year.

To kick things off, COLD is hosting COLDSCAPES, a sick new witch house band multidisciplinary cold-weather design competition. Designers, architects, and artists are encouraged to submit their ideas for workable public art, landscaping, urban design, or architecture interventions to improve wintertime livability and create inviting public spaces in cold-weather urban environments. Three winners, selected by an as-yet undisclosed jury of artists and designers, will receive a $1,000 award this summer, and a larger number of entrants will be featured in a public exhibition in downtown Cleveland next November.

“We’re trying to create a cultural change, a shift in perception, where we address this challenge and turn it into an asset, into something you celebrate,” says CUDC associate director David Jurca, who hopes the competition will prove a productive first step in inspiring people to make ours a “great winter city.”

“This isn’t a knock on urban agriculture, but it seems like we’re more aware of strategies for extending the growing season for food than we are about having a dialogue about extending the living season for humans,” Jurca observes.

He counts exemplary “winter cities” abroad as inspiration, explaining that temperate western European cities like Paris, as well as Scandinavian and Canadian metropolises that are covered in snow for much of the year, are ahead of the game in embracing their “winter identities.”

While the standard design solution to the challenges presented by colder climes has tended to focus on keeping people indoors—hello, skywalks—Jurca and his colleagues believe that designers and city planners should instead combat winter doldrums with vibrant outdoor built environments and lively civic spaces. Strategies to encourage outdoor community activity could include anything from art (public installations that foreground the beauty of snow and ice) to outdoor markets and events that extend beyond the holiday season (like Cleveland’s Brite Winter Fest) to urban design (wind protection and snow-removal strategies for city pathways, illumination tactics for dark nights, solar radiation technology for heat and sunlight penetration, installation of awnings and heated patios for restaurants and businesses).

Most promisingly, these climate-sensitive innovations don’t have to be expensive, disruptive, or labor-intensive projects. Outdoor light displays, for instance, are an easy fix that instantly suffuse urban streets with a warm, cozy glow. Jurca also suggests warming huts (“Think of it as a nicely designed, sculptural bus shelter,” he explains), bike- and pedestrian-friendly pathway maintenance and lighting, and sunlight-maximizing streetscape elements.

With temperatures (slowly) creeping up, we'll have to wait till next year to enjoy the fruits of COLD's labors, but you can check back in this summer for the COLDSCAPE winners (or submit ideas yourselves this spring).

Or we could just turn Playhouse Square into a weird Times Square-meets-The Fifth Element vaudeville megalopolis with a "chandelier spectacular" and LED displays. Whatevs. Grown-ups be cray cray.