Northern Michigan Loves Its Winter Cities

When Traverse City looked at how to use some prime real estate along its waterfront, planners envisioned more than spring picnics and summer trips to the beach. They pictured icy, northerly winds blowing across the bay and considered how throngs of happy skaters might be enticed to take advantage of Northern Michigan’s gentle snowfalls and a winter-gorgeous bay view. They imagined vending huts for a hot chocolate warm-up, and though the use of a former marina-side museum building has not yet been decided, options include a restaurant with windows overlooking the planned rink. Traverse City Planner Russ Soyring says he can picture parents enjoying a meal there as they watch their children skating outside. What he doesn’t want Traverse City residents doing on this former zoo site, or anywhere else nearby, is hibernating through winter. “When we are designing all public places now, we’re asking designers to think about what it would be like to be in that space during the middle of winter, to think about things like wind screens and sun pockets and what amenities would attract people outdoors,” Soyring says. “We are and we want to be a four-season community, and we don’t want a stale period when we can’t be doing things actively.”

Traverse City’s planning shift stems from what’s known worldwide as the Winter Cities movement. The Livable Winter Cities Association, started in Canada in 1982, first created a network among the world’s coldest weather destinations as a way for the most enthusiastic and effective town leaders to share how they’ve kept winter a time of celebration, not dread.Interest in the volunteer organization began to wane a few years ago, so Patrick Coleman, a Marquette-based planner and long-time board member infused it with new life. In 2009, he formed the web-based Winter Cities Institute, which he now runs alongside his day job as a planner heading the Marquette office of U.P. Engineers and Architects, Inc. And momentum is building.

Traverse City joined in 2010, about the same time the Michigan Municipal League was devoting a full issue of its magazine, The Review, to the Winter Cities movement and Michigan’s thriving winter culture. Stories they shared about sled dog races, polar plunges or luge runs built smack in the middle of a downtown street aren’t just fun, says Dan Gilmartin, the Municipal League’s executive director, they’re a potential key to Michigan’s economic salvation.

When people discuss economic development and job creation, they tend to talk taxes and regulations and then stop the conversation there, he says. “When you look at a Chicago or Seattle or Portland, we don’t lose to them on taxes and regulations, we lose on leveraging our own assets, the cultural assets we have in our communities.”

Cities across Michigan’s North are increasingly easy to walk around in during winter—a big draw for today’s young professionals and retirees alike. “Then you throw in all the activities like ice fishing and cross-country skiing, everything we’ve always had, and you leverage that off a cool little downtown historic area that’s authentic. That works,” Gilmartin says. “And we think it can appeal to a lot of people looking for a new place to live and work or visit.

“The important thing is culturally not apologizing for winter but celebrating it. It’s who we are. We see it as a real opportunity to get a leg up on the competition.”

Winter City 101

Most of Northern Michigan fits the formal definition of a Winter City—a place in which January temperatures average below water’s freezing point—32˚ F. But freezing temperatures can lead to a “frozen,” not thriving city, unless the area leverages winter as an economic and tourism driver and considers winter in all its planning efforts, institute director Coleman says.

Enthusiasm doesn’t hurt, either.

Head outside on a midwinter day in Anchorage, Alaska, for example, and you’ll find streets teeming with activity, he says, as people pull ice grips onto their boots and go for a walk or ride bicycles, run and ski on the many in-city trails. The “worse” the weather gets in Houghton, Michigan, the busier the streets, the ski trails and the broomball courts. Some 100,000 people flock to the Bon Soo Winter Carnival in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, for a 10-day event that even features a canoe race across the ice floe-filled St. Lawrence River.

What those and other thriving northern cities practice, he notes, is “an attitude to match their latitude.”

“We hear weathercasters saying, ‘It’s a rotten day out there, so get ready,’ ” he says, when there are maybe two inches of snow in the forecast. “There are people who celebrate that fact, and maybe we all should. It’s all about the attitude.”

But it takes more than a positive attitude or even love of snow to make a winter city a comfortable, energy-efficient place in which to live, Coleman notes. So in addition to swapping ideas about how to celebrate winter, the institute’s member cities, architects and planners also share practical winter-living solutions: cheerier mood-boosting lighting, energy-efficient heating methods or practical ways to balance landscape design with easy snow removal—anything that might temper the inconveniences of winter or boost enjoyment of snow.

Find hundreds of winter Northern Michigan events and Northern Michigan winter festivals in the MyNorth Calendar of Events.

Members pay a small fee, then get access to an extensive collection of research as well as discussion boards that facilitate networking with other cities that now represent the United States, Canada, Sweden, New Zealand, Finland, Norway, Germany, Iceland and the United Kingdom. Through that interaction, they learn of, and sometimes adopt, ideas like one Coleman calls the “friendly snowplow.”

A town survey in Prince George, British Columbia, Canada, first revealed a widespread pet peeve of residents: the way the city snowplow would sock in their driveways just as they’d gotten them cleared. A clever public works employee fashioned a small gate attached to the plow that could be dropped down to shield driveways when passing. At winter cities conferences, the idea spread and was adopted in Anchorage and later Bozeman, Montana.

Similarly, a winter cities connection helped Marquette officials learn that Anchorage had successfully stopped plowing bike paths in winter and was instead grooming them for use by skiers. As a result, cross-country skiers will this winter have an additional seven miles of Marquette waterfront trails to explore through a pilot snow grooming project.

More winter innovations are underway across Michigan, Coleman says, some through his town and city planning work. When he was asked to help the Village of Elberta create a new community park, for example, he asked the community to think how the park would be used in winter, something they hadn’t previously considered. Now, a former life saving station is used as a warming house for ice skaters and sledders.

Houghton’s steep downtown hills, potentially a pedestrian and plowing nightmare, are being spun as a plus for on-street snowboarding competitions or other winter fun. That midstreet fun shows how winter city thinking has evolved over the years, notes Houghton City Manager Scott MacInnes, one of the movement’s most active members. In 1998, Houghton won a major winter cities planning award for its enclosed downtown walkways and system that connected downtown shops via doors that opened between them. Much of that system has since been removed. While it sheltered people from the elements, it also took energy from the streets, he says.

Current research supports that shift, says Winter Cities Institute member Bob Gibbs, an urban planning expert now with offices in Petoskey. In place of malls, developers are creating new outdoor “lifestyle centers” that resemble the historic downtowns already found across Michigan’s North. Research, he notes, shows stores have higher sales in cold climates than warm ones, with shoppers preferring the chance to move outdoors between stores.

At one time, conventional wisdom said nobody would live in a too-hot city like Phoenix, or a too-rainy city like Seattle, Gibbs says. Proof that snow is finally getting respect: Within the past year, Forbes Magazine named Marquette the third best city in the country in which to raise a family.

Meanwhile, Traverse City continues discussions like how to develop scenic streetscapes yet keep snowplows from cracking decorative curbs, or how to keep residents and visitors comfortably active outside when darkness arrives at 5 p.m.A project in Traverse City’s warehouse district is exploring an ice melt system, not unlike one that heats the sidewalks in downtown Holland, Michigan, in winter. Studying architecture and planning elsewhere in the world could lead to ever-intriguing possibilities, Soyring says. Many Scandinavian cities paint their buildings vibrant shades of blue, yellow or red, for example—a refreshing jolt of vibrancy during what can be months of muted light.

A cultural shift’s coming to North America as well, the institute’s Coleman believes. Young people emulate Hollywood, and we’re seeing a few more celebrities in films with glowing on-screen depictions of places like Alaska, the Arctic, even Michigan. Creative festivals, too, can introduce people to a cold-weather destination they’ll perhaps return to again and again.  “I think we can overcome this,” Coleman says. “We just need to get our kids outdoors, teach them lifelong hobbies and sports and interests that are outdoor-oriented, start to change a culture that warm is good and cold is bad. Personally, I feel sorry for people who don’t have snow. They’re missing out on a pretty cool part of the year.”

Find hundreds of winter Northern Michigan events and Northern Michigan winter festivals in the MyNorth Calendar of Events.