Winter Cities: Enduring or embracing our climate?

As we read news on massive winter storm in US, our friend Melissa Reese Lim writes from New York- in the eye of the snowstorm- and poses a very valid question to planners and designers. She questions whether cities are designed to embrace or to endure weather. This a very relevant question that needs to be answered not only by planners who works in cold weather countries but also all over the world. Will our tropical cities be different if this question is addressed properly?

This article was originally posted in Encountering Urbanization and re-posted here in with her permission.


A picnic area in upstate New York closed for the winter (image credit:M.R.Lim)

While so much of my interest in cities deals with people gathering or enjoying time outdoors, in public space, I realize that often this is examined by planners in a vacuum, without regard for the local climatic conditions. Weather however is often the first barrier to using a space cited by the everyday user, from rain keeping us from the beach in Florida, to humidity deterring us from exploring Singapore by walking, to subzero temperatures keeping us indoors in Ithaca. In September 2012 I had to opportunity to speak alongside Jan Gehl at a conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  At one point I remember my neighboring colleagues from Malaysia asking Mr Gehl if he honestly expected people in the tropics to utilize biking, pedestrian and other outdoor infrastructure in Malaysia and Singapore’s heat and humidity as compared to the climate in Denmark.  He responded with photos of Dans biking through snow with an umbrella and people enjoying an outdoor cafe in winter, wrapped in blankets.  His response simply was why can’t people enjoy their city in any weather?

To me it comes down to a simple idea, particularly as I am experiencing winter anew after living in Singapore for a few years and growing up in Florida.  Are we simply enduring our cities’ climate or are we embracing it? This concept is one which planners and designers should keep at the forefront of their minds as they work to design cities for people, may they be in hot humid environments, or in cold northern cities.

Over the next few posts I want to further explore this idea of cities embracing winter through a variety of planned and unplanned methods. As my last piece on winter festivals showed, cities are already working to encourage people to gather outdoors even in the cold.  Later this week a group of planners, designers and city leaders will also gather in Edmonton, Canada for an international conference on “shaking up preconceptions about how we plan, design, work and play in winter cities.”


A child in Montreal enjoying public art in the snow (image credit:M.R.Lim)

As much of New York City is closed today from a snow storm I am also reminded that winter storms do pose real threats to our safety and transportation in cities. Therefore planning and design measures to deal with such storms is a top priority for urban leaders.  However we should not let such storms cloud our feelings about the entire season, nor should as we urbanist only look at utilitarian aspects of urban design in winter. Perhaps we need to remember the childlike excitement of a season’s first snow, or for us that grew up in warmer climates, the excitement we had even as teenagers or adults the first time really noticed the beauty of a snowflake.  A recent article on Ithaca’s historic relationship with winter even posed the question was winter more “exciting and dramatic” years ago, or were their just more winter embracers before? As the city of Edmonton so aptly states in their WinterCity Strategy Implementation Plan 2013, “It’s time to reclaim the joy of winter” in our cities.  Over the next few months of winter in the northern hemisphere, I hope you can also reclaim this joy of winter in your city.


IMG_7468Melissa Reese Lim is currently based out of Ithaca, NY where she writes about urban planning issues and contributes to planning research projects when she is not working as a barista.  Previously she was based out of Singapore where she worked as a research associate at the National University of Singapore’s Centre for Sustainable Asian Cities. Her work their examined art and culture’s contribution to sustainability in cities, how to benchmark sustainable urban development, and documenting cases of urban regeneration in Asian cities. A core focus of much of her research was public participation in planning and design solution. She graduated from NYU with a Masters of Urban Planning, specializing in international development after obtaining a Bachelors of Urban and Environmental Planning from the University of Virginia. When not making coffee or thinking about cities she enjoying cooking, hosting others with her husband, and traveling to new cities.

About the author

Devisanthi Tunas is the co-founder of, an online platform which promotes sustainability awareness and green building solutions in tropical context. She is a Singapore based architect.