Saturday, February 25, 2012

Cool Stuff in a Winter City

Cool Stuff by raise my voice
Cool Stuff, a photo by raise my voice on Flickr.

Winter is a part of life in Edmonton. In fact, as a born and bred Edmontonian, I can't really imagine life without it. We've had it easy this year (for the most part - as I write this, centimetre upon centimetre is falling from the sky at a very fast rate), but the winter of 2011 reminded me of the ones when I was a child: long, snowy, and COLD!

An exhibit in Enterprise Square until the end of March examines the area through the lens of winter. Cool Stuff features more than 350 items from the University of Alberta's 29 museums. Artwork, clothing, animal specimens, and other artefacts exemplify life in the northern winter, both now and throughout history. Some items that really stood out for me were items of Inuit dress, as well as the colourful artwork by Ted Harrison.

Winter is something that has been on the City's mind for a while now. The WinterCity Strategy is part of an effort to encourage peopel to embrace the winter and present Edmonton as a world leader in celebrating our climate.

Winter has been celebrated in Edmonton through several festivals, such as Silver Skate (the longest-running winter festival in Edmonton), Ice on Whyte, the various efforts of the Edmonton Winter Light Society, and most recently, Metropolis.

Since staying inside is not going to make the snow and cold going away, activities that encourage people to get outside and take part in activities is quite important, even if it is just admiring sculptures of snow and ice. Offering some coverage to allow people to warm up is also important, but putting everything inside, even if it just within temporary structures (like with Metropolis) is counter-productive. If I want to go to an indoor activity, I would rather go see a band perform in a concert venue, a movie in a theatre, or a conference at a hotel.

That being said, having one-off events like the recent Parka Patio presented by Latitude 53 had a little bit of everything: food, music, and art in a setting modified to accommodate the weather and make sure everyone was comfortable.

I am a big fan of hyper-local, neighbourhood celebrations; ones that not only offer things to enjoy for local residents, but are actually a reason for people from other parts of the city to head over and experience life outside their immediate environment. I am thinking about Common Ground in McCauley, which was part of the Winter Light series of events. Music, storytelling, food, and outdoor installations were just part of this incredible event. Performances took part inside teepees heated by fire, while there was plenty outside to see and do. And those in attendance were not just from the inner city.

Keep it relevant, keep it multifaceted, and keep it focussed on local culture, food, and entertainment, and combine it with planning that takes into account the unpredictable fluctuations in weather that our winters are famous for, and that is a winning combination. No event or strategy will be all things to all people, so it is important to have a variety of options instead of pushing one major "winter festival."

Then, there are the practical details that should always be a priority for Edmonton's City Council, if we want the city to be truly safe and sustainable year round. More cycling lanes will ensure that those brave (or crazy!) enough to ride on two wheels in the winter will not have as much traffic with which to contend. Road maintenance and effective snow clearing and sanding are definitely important.

Finally, the activist in me has to get this in: the City needs effective, continuing strategies on dealing with homelessness and affordable housing. These are issues that increase in urgency when the weather gets colder. Since we have such a long winter season combined with a significant homeless population (as well as those at risk) and shelters that become overextended to the maximum, this needs to be a top priority. After all, to me at least, exactly how "world class" a city is directly relates to how well it takes care of those citizens who are most vulnerable.

We can embrace the climate in Edmonton as well as everyone who lives here. We have the minds, the talent, and the ability.

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