Osceola fatbiking event Wisconsin

For a community’s downtown to be winter-friendly, basic infrastructure must be in place: sidewalks cleared of snow and ice, easy (and snow- and ice-free) access from parking spaces to sidewalks, etc. Beyond these basics, some simple ordinance changes or minor public investments can have an impact on the ability and willingness of residents to venture outdoors.

Parks and recreation

Parks and trails that attract many users in the summer can easily be transformed into winter playspaces with only minor changes. From a management perspective, snow clearance can make a big difference – for instance, Eau Claire’s Wintermission project has committed to regularly clearing a 4-mile recreation path connected to downtown to encourage walking and biking activities year-round. And, of course, if people are walking and biking more, they will also need access to supportive amenities such as benches and bike racks, which are often taken in during the winter. While some can be stored, leaving amenities in key locations ensures that users don’t end up stranded on the other end of their trip.

Adding additional universal or winter-specific amenities to parks can also be a draw. Fireplaces and fire pits, such as those added to Wausau’s Riverwalk, can create light and heat during winter evenings and/or during events. Park pavilions built with one or two sides, or able to accommodate winter screening can be used as warming shelters in the winter. Well-designed bus shelters can serve the same purpose in communities with public transit. For existing parks, popup shelters can also be installed and can feature any number of unique designs.

Parks that currently close at sunset year-round should be open and lit into the evening hours during the winter. Maintenance workers can strategically pile snow into areas that may serve as either a winter play hill and/or a windbreak to shelter play equipment or ice rinks. Adding vegetation with winter interest is also helpful, as is the use of denser vegetative buffers in open spaces and along blank walls to trap wind, while deciduous trees along streets allow winter sunlight to reach the sidewalks.

Planning and design

Adding certain design considerations to the review of new public and private developments can make a huge and long-lasting difference in the experience of pedestrians during the winter months.

For instance, on the public infrastructure side, raised crosswalks allow less snow and ice to accumulate, making them safer for pedestrians. Street furniture made of warm materials (wood vs. concrete) and painted in colorful ways is more useful year-round. Pedestrian-scaled lighting along sidewalks and trails is important, and motion-activated lights are now an option for limited-use areas where permanent lighting is undesirable (for example, see the lighting being added to the Wisconsin Rapids riverfront). Adding outlets to newly installed light poles makes it easier to add lighting, heat and other amenities in the future, while lit wayfinding signs and public art exhibits can provide visual wayfinding cues even in the dark.

On the side of private development, in addition to requiring active first-floor uses, communities can require storefronts and/or signage to be illuminated. Multi-story buildings built with podium-style bases are proven to generate less street-level wind, and awnings also help to block downdrafts. Similarly, encouraging plazas and gathering spaces to be located in mid-block areas rather than near intersections can shelter these spaces from wind, making them warmer. Strategically locating rooflines and reflective materials to allow winter sunlight to reach sidewalks is also important.

Access and encouragement

At first, it may take some effort to encourage residents to experiment with venturing outside during the winter months. In many cases, the ability to test out gear or take lessons at try-it days or meet-up events, such as Osceola’s winter walks and fat bike events, provides social support as well as instruction for prospective new users. Racine’s ice rink provides free ice skates for visitors, paid for by community donations. Winter brings with it many new activity options, and local residents can be called on to show off their knowledge. Ice fishing, ice skating, skijoring, fat bike riding and dogsledding are just some examples of activities that can be hosted just about anywhere. From a regulatory perspective, there are other ways to encourage getting outside in winter, such as allowing outdoor patios to remain in place on sidewalks (with appropriate snow clearing) and accommodating property owners that wish to add temporary windscreens or entry vestibules in appropriate locations. Regardless of the strategies selected in your community, these efforts are sure to be appreciated by wintertime visitors and by businesses that benefit from this increased traffic.