Northern Exposure - International Edition?

Originally posted in April on Winter City Edmonton

It is incredibly exciting to simultaneously promote your city, hit a career goal and get to cross a country off of your ‘must-visit’ destinations list. And to do all of this as an urban planner makes it even better. Because of the amount of work I did on Edmonton’s new Winter Design Guidelines, I was invited to speak at the 2016 International Winter Cities Symposium in Turkey this past February. The experience was something I will never forget.

The conference was held in northeastern Turkey, in a city called Erzurum, which is home to Ataturk University, the Palandoken Mountain ski resort and an incredibly warm and welcoming population. Erzurum was very snowy and very beautiful. It was about -2 degrees Celsius and sunny during the day. Almost every time I was indoors, I would see portable heaters about the rooms, but I would still feel quite cold.

All day long, I would hear soft thudding noises. It was the sound of large mounds of snow sliding right off the roofs (which is a missed opportunity, because snow is an excellent insulator) onto the middle of a recently shovelled sidewalk. Large icicles hung precariously from eaves, steadily dripping on sidewalks and people. Overnight, the temperature would drop to -25, and all those drips would freeze, creating a city-wide ice rink in the evening and morning.

It was interesting to see another winter city’s challenges. Their challenges seemed to be rooted in building material selection and little insulation, resulting in heat loss. The buildings and sidewalks were constructed with materials you would find in the warm Mediterranean areas of the country. Cold climate cities the world over are guilty of importing unsuitable building forms from southern climates. My experience in Erzurum really underlined the importance of viewing development with a winter lens, which is something we’re getting better at doing here, too.

A few days before the conference was set to begin, I was contacted by Patrick Coleman, the founder of the Winter Cities Institute. I had met Patrick the year before in Edmonton at the 2015 Winter Cities Shake Up Conference. He informed me that he could no longer attend the conference, and asked if I would be willing to give the opening keynote presentation. Yikes! Sensing the pinch the conference organizers were in, I accepted, and presented “A Cure for the Common Cold” on his behalf.

On the second day of the conference, I gave my presentation, called ‘Northern Exposure: Latitudes, Attitudes and Platitudes’. Although the online program was in English, the printed programs were in Turkish, so my attempt at a catchy presentation title was not so successful. I became very concerned that none of my jokes would land! I discussed how ‘platitudes’ about winter in different places impact our cultural acceptance or rejection of winter, and how those ‘attitudes’ affect built form in different cities, at different ‘latitudes’. I closed with how we are approaching winter at latitude 53 in Edmonton, including the WinterCity Strategy, its companion implementation plan, the Winter Design Guidelines, and the Creative Lighting Master Plan. I got the sense that I was speaking to a very technically-minded group, so I emphasized how the WinterCity Advisory Council understood that becoming a truly great winter city meant a cultural shift. We would have to look at the whole system in order to create change in our city. The audience was very interested in our approach, what we have learned, who had to be involved, what we would improve, and how much further we have to go.

The day after I delivered the keynote address, a large group of us (from the conference) were out having donairs (obviously) when the restaurant owner grabbed my arm. He wanted to show me the newspaper, which included a large group photo, and a blown up photo of me. I found this equal parts surprising and hilarious, and immediately cracked up laughing. The ‘Big in Japan’ and ‘the David Hassellhoff of Urban Planning’ jokes continued for the rest of my time in Turkey. I also got to hear myself on the evening news (the only part of the news I could understand), and was forwarded another newspaper interview spread after I returned home. I was sent photos of me presenting, sledding, dancing (badly) with a group on the side of a snowy mountain, having tea next to ice sculptures with high ranking officials, having intense snowball fights with high-ranking officials. It was so much fun. Winter had been fully embraced!

The conference really confirmed for me that despite contextual differences in northern cities, a great winter city needs to support a comfortable pedestrian environment. There is a business case for designing with a winter lens, which includes improved social and environmental outcomes. We have great momentum and community support in Edmonton to reduce the negative impacts of winter while enhancing its positive attributes.

As an aside, one of the most impactful things to me about this trip was the positive response I received from young(er) women from Turkey, Europe and the Middle East, who want to pursue a career in urban planning. They thought it was pretty cool have a young(ish) female ‘expert’ as a keynote. I feel incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity.

All in all, the conference was a fantastic experience. Indeed, my experience there underscored what emerging leaders we are in winter city thinking. Our work is so well-known, in fact, that other presenters from around the world used pictures of Edmonton and from the Design Guidelines in their presentations.

So grab your mittens and puffy coats! We should all find ways to celebrate winter in Edmonton – and support the winter city philosophy around the world!

- Nola Kilmartin