Spaces to Places

Transforming Public Spaces into Vibrant Places for the Community.

Placemaking During a COVID-19 Winter

Living outdoors has become a necessity as COVID-19 restrictions and public safety concerns have limited, or banned, indoor activities. But what will happen as its gest colder and darker as winter approaches?

A person walking a dog on a sidewalk covered with snow

Photo courtesy of Holly Moskerintz

It may be time to learn from the Scandinavian countries, where people have been routinely socializing outdoors in winter way before COVID-19. “You see people wrapped up, sometimes round a little fire, eating and talking in the freezing cold. It’s partly a mindset,” said Catharine Ward Thompson of the OPENspace Research Centre at Edinburgh University.

People roasting marshmallows in firepit

Kali9/E+/Getty Images

Thompson  went on to say that being outside could help people combat feelings of social isolation, “Even nodding at your neighbour or having a chat with a friend in the park makes a huge difference to your feeling of social connectedness.”

We can also learn a thing or two from our friends up north. Edmonton, Alberta first launched a Winter City Strategy in 2012 as a way to reclaim the joy of winter and embrace the season. It laid the groundwork for thinking and acting differently in order to minimize winter’s negative aspects and create a more livable, vibrant city year-round. They are now ready to address COVID-19 ahead on this winter.

“Our work has invited Edmontonians to re-imagine winter and to get back outside. And they are doing that. Citizens are no longer as disconnected from the outside, from our winter weather. They are rediscovering the joy that can come from being outside on a beautiful winter day.”
Ben Henderson, WinterCity Advisory Council Co-Chair; Edmonton City Councillor.

Poster of the City of Edmonton, Canada promoting winter activities, and a photo featuring people ice skating

Photo courtesy of the City of Edmonton

Wintermission, is a similar strategy conceived of by 8 80 Cities, which improves the quality of life for people in cities.  This strategy was initiated to combat social isolation and increase levels of physical activity in winter for all residents, no matter their age, ability, socio-economic, or ethnocultural backgrounds. It set out a challenge for cities to undertake a process of community engagement, pilot projects, and the development of a unique winter city strategy.

Three cities participated: Buffalo, NY; Eau Claire, WI, and Leadville, CO. In Eau Claire, ideas included a dedicated winter recreation path, which creates a circuit around the Randall Park neighborhood. The route will receive high priority plowing after snow events so residents can have a safe place to be active. They will also install new and improved signage to help guide people in Eau Claire to key winter activities and attractions such Winter After Hours at Pinehurst Park.

Now is the time to start taking a cue from these cities and making plans to provide welcoming, fun outdoor places to gather in the coming winter months. Surviving a COVID-19 Winter, is a set of strategies to adapt to COVID-19 in winter that was shared with Baltimore’s city leadership. But these recommendations can apply to many other cities. Here are some of the recommendations:

  • Prioritize snow removal along city trails, park paths, recreational loops, and at playgrounds and skate parks.
  • Increase commercial vending opportunities at parks and facilities.
  • Work with new and existing recreational partners and rec centers to encourage multi-season equipment use and outdoor recreation and lesson opportunities.
  • Run the department’s hiking, biking, and other outdoor recreation programming through winter.
  • Simplify and remove regulations to increase year-round use of outdoor space for restaurant and retail patios.
  • Create easy opportunities and develop clear, simple parameters for the use of fire in outdoor public spaces (fire pits, bonfires, heaters, etc.)
A father ice skating with his kids

Alexander Nakic/E+/Getty Images

Winter Places is a new design competition for winter placemaking in direct response to the challenges COVID-19 will present in the cold weather months.  The competition sought out ideas and designs for quickly implementable, low cost interventions to drive visitors back to Main Street and to encourage them to stay longer and patronize area restaurants and businesses.

Ideas for outdoor dining, winter festivals, and  art installations were crowdsourced from communities looking to activate their cities & towns this winter. Final designs are published in a “Winter Places” activation guide book which includes actionable, impactful and cost-effective solutions to keep  downtowns active during colder months. The Guide also includes cost  (low cost, medium, pricey) and implementation time estimates. Each selected design features images, a description and contact information. Sign up to receive the Guide.

A photo of a Christmas market during the 2017 Dubrovnik Winter Festival

Photo courtesy of Winter Places Guide from Bench Consulting

Chicago introduced their own competition, the Chicago COVID-19 Winter Dining Challenge, to solicit ideas for winter outdoor dining solutions to help restaurants as safety concerns restrict indoor dining during the pandemic. “We need out-of-the-box thinking to address the hardship facing our industry. The Winter Design Challenge demonstrates the City’s support of innovation in these trying times, and we look forward to ideas that are both creative and operationally attainable for our members", said Sam Toia, President and CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association.

They received more than 640 submissions. One idea is  Pneumatic Pods that would use pre-heated indoor air to provide insulated and weather-resistant, modular zones for outdoor eating. Another idea is ChicagoCommon, a modular dining pod that is flexible to the varying needs of the city. This modular proposal can be utilized by itself or in a group depending on space and needs. Take a look at all the ideas.

A sketch of the ChicagoCommon idea featuring a modular dining pod that is flexible to the varying needs of the city

Photo courtesy of Andrew Kroll

As we prepare to hunker down as winter approaches, we need to get accustomed to spending a lot of time outdoors. And it’s time for cities and towns to start adapting. If your city, or business, hasn’t developed a strategy to plan for addressing COVID-19 during the winter,  now if the perfect time to do so.

And don’t forget to apply for NAR’s Placemaking grant to help fund the creation of a vibrant outdoor gathering spot in your community.


Community Outreach Programs

Housing Opportunity Grant
Housing Opportunity Grants support state and local REALTOR® Associations’ affordable housing activities. The goal of the program is to position REALTORS® as leaders in improving their communities by creating affordable housing

Smart Growth Grant
Smart growth is an approach to development that encourages a mix of building types and uses, diverse housing and transportation options, development within existing neighborhoods, and community engagement. The Smart Growth Program offers state and local REALTOR® Associations to way to engage with government officials, community partners and the general public in planning and designing community’s future.

Planned diversity initiatives makes good business sense. REALTOR® Associations with well-planned diversity programs create a stronger sense of community, particularly in neighborhoods with high concentrations of foreign-born and minority residents who are moving up the socioeconomic ladder and are buying homes.

NAR Placemaking Resources

Placemaking Guide: A Guide to Transform a Public Space into a Community Place
REALTORS® and state and local association staff can learn the details of Placemaking, the kinds of projects placemaking entails, how to organize them, and where to go for assistance and resources.

Placemaking Webinar Series
Our Placemaking Webinar Series will provide more in depth information on the various types of Placemaking and how REALTORS® were involved in Placemaking activities in their communities.

Placemaking Grant
The Placemaking Grant funds the creation of new public spaces, like pocket parks, trails & gardens, in a community. The grant focuses on “lighter, cheaper, quicker” placemaking projects, which can be built under a year and cost less  than $200,000.

Comment Policy

The opinions expressed in reader comments sections on this website are those of the reader and not NAR or REALTOR® Magazine.

Smart Growth

The healthier a community, the better the environment for REALTORS®. Keeping a community attractive, livable and functioning well is a complex task.