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The city of Winnipeg, known for being extremely cold, only receives 100 centimetres of snow per year, compared to 230 in Montreal. Of all the major Canadian cities, Montreal and Quebec City are the ones where it snows the most. But what about Quebecers’ relationship with winter? Are we appreciating it at its fair value?

To answer this question, in January 2019, Rues Principales, Vivre en Ville, and La Pépinière | Espaces Collectifs launched the Laboratoire de l’hiver, an organization with the goal of creating a common framework for intervention to reclaim the winter season. This collaboration also gave rise to the Ville d’hiver guide, which offers solutions for making winter in the city easier through the development of public spaces, universal accessibility, and street furniture. Olivier Legault, an urban planner and the cofounder of the Laboratoire, paints a realistic yet optimistic portrait of winter in the city.

strøm spa nordique

Hello, Olivier. As an urban planner, what is it that led you to take an interest in winter in an urban context?

Olivier legault

“I’m a native of Quebec City, where winter is easier, maybe more straightforward. More emphatic, certainly, and especially less unstable than in Montreal, which is considered to be a wet winter city. I came to Montreal to study; I have a background in cultural geography (so, everything related to the cultural relationship with the territory, to humanity in the territory) and urban planning.

“One of my professors, Claude Marois, an urban geographer, once pointed out that the proposals of urban planners were never suited to our climatic and geo- graphic reality. When he said that, it resonated with me so much. In response to that remark, I became interested in all the research already done on cities and winter. I also went to spend a session in Sweden at Lund University, where I conducted case studies on Nordic cities and winter cities.”

strøm spa nordique

The Laboratoire’s mission is to reinvent winter activity in dense urban environments. What’s the difference between the way winter is experienced in the city vs. outside the city?

Olivier legault

“First of all, I would like to clarify that downtown Plessisville or Victoriaville, for example, are dense urban environments in our eyes. Urban life is every- where in Quebec.

“When looking at the geography of winter activities, there’s nothing more beautiful than a snowy boreal forest with a little creek that has frozen over a bit, but where the current is still flowing, protected from the wind thanks to the evergreens, with the tracks of animals in the snow all around. It’s magnificent, and it’s no wonder these places are popular for winter activities. It’s winter at its most beautiful.

“Because you have to move around and walk to avoid getting too cold, traditional winter activity doesn’t take place in dense urban environments or small public spaces. However, if you want to enjoy winter in the city, you have to know how to find solutions. Setting up a curling game outside, for example, doesn’t take up much space, and it gets people moving on a small area. Ideally, this is surrounded by a shack where hot chocolate is served, a few lights to illuminate the evenings that start early, and colourful art installations that help brighten up the city, which is often grey in the winter. Of course, check that it’s possible to remove the snow and ice easily. It’s also necessary to ensure, as much as possible, that the place isn’t in a wind corridor at the foot of a tower, and that the level of sun exposure is optimal. When you feel that beautiful sun, even in the winter at -10°C, you stop for a moment and soak it up. At the Laboratoire, we’re absolutely looking to create that moment!

frederick wallace Bfz FCsqv0Y unsplash - Winter and City Life

strøm spa nordique

What are some of the Laboratoire’s activities?

olivier legault

“We create prototypes for public spaces. We conduct research. We think up new products to better enjoy winter. Among other things, we’ve designed four-season play structures for young children and a crazy blanket that lets you both warm yourself up around the fire and slide on the snow. We would even like to develop a line of beautiful Tempo shelters and make them real works of art!

“We’re also thinking about street furniture; for example, a park bench doesn’t work in the winter. We had the idea of higher armrests, at the height of the buttocks. Since they’re vertical, they don’t need to be removed when snowplows pass. They clear the snow on their own and don’t accumulate ice. We’re trying to find alternatives to what is normally designed for the summer only.”

strøm spa nordique

The Ville d’hiver guide proposes “clearing snow less, clearing snow better, and clearing snow for universal accessibility.” What would we do with the snow?

olivier legault

“We would leave it there! It’s necessary to ask ourselves as a society if we really need to clear so much snow all the time. When is snow removal appropriate, sufficient? When we talk to public works employees who have been on the job for 20 years, they tell us that they have greatly increased the level of service in recent years. The pressure continues to grow. Do we really want to put so much money into these costly operations?

“Urban density necessarily leads to the constraint of movement and universal accessibility. Of course, it’s necessary to think of seniors, people in wheelchairs, and parents with strollers. But on the other side, we also have mothers and fathers who would like the streets to remain snow-covered because it’s nice to take their child to daycare on a sled! The streets have to be maintained to some degree, but the issue of snow removal, like many others, is an important issue. It plays on that of movement, which, when we look at the surveys, emerges as the main irritant of the cold season for citizens.”

strøm spa nordique

Your work talks a lot about “Hivernity.” What is this, exactly?

olivier legault

“This is an expression that comes to us from Louis- Edmond Hamelin, a Quebec linguist and geographer who has done a lot of work on the concept of Nordicity, particularly by developing a vocabulary of more than 300 terms for talking about winter.

“Hivernity is a seasonal manifestation of Nordic conditions. In Montreal, for example, since we are located at the 45th parallel, I find it more suitable to talk about Hivernity than Nordicity, particularly out of respect for people who live further north! Montreal is unique: despite our latitude, we receive a great deal of snow, and it gets very cold. While we are located at the same latitude as Bordeaux, our cold and snow conditions are comparable to those of Moscow—another big city, certainly, but located much further north.”

strøm spa nordique

Between those who have positioned Quebecers as a Nordic population, including Hamelin, and those like Alain Dubuc, the author of Maudit hiver, who sees winter instead as an unpleasant interlude interrupting our summer lifestyle, the cold season has caused a lot of ink to be spilled! Where do you see yourself?

olivier legault

“Clearly, the relationship with winter is more conflicted than the relationship with summer! And whether you like it or not, it has a major impact on our lives.

“For my part, I like to understand the rhythm of the seasons, and winter is far from being anecdotal in a year! When we talk about Hivernity, we are assuming seasonality, but more than that, we are recognizing that there is something special that fundamentally changes our lifestyles in the winter, that defines us. It creates an identity shared by people who live on the same territory. It appeals to the feeling of community, to the collective. There’s something very inclusive there, and an inclusive identity trait is a beautiful gift!”

Strom MSH Janvier19 HD95 - Winter and City Life