Not what we’re going for. (Author photo)

“But what about winter?”

Every conversation about moving activities with people outside ends with this, whether it’s about school, working at home, or anything else. This was true even before coronavirus attacked the planet, back when I was teaching college students about research on people and environments. Nature does a lot for us, including making it much harder to catch COVID. But what about the half of the year when nature itself is a hazard? 

Landscape architects like me know that outdoor spaces are almost always designed for warm weather, even where it’s only really warm for a few months. Spring and autumn are gorgeous in many places, yet it’s rare to find an outdoor space designed for use during these shoulder seasons, forget winter.

Is it possible to be comfortable outside in cold weather? 
What’s a good winter space even like?

Good winter spaces… 

…function in winter
Choose seating and tables for all-weather use and attractiveness. Stone or concrete gets cold; metal of any kind gets even colder. Plastic and wood are better choices. Or use cushions.

Design for ice: textured pavement, excellent drainage. Ice becomes a problem as soon as night-time temps drop below freezing, which can happen well before it gets too cold during the day. Dark pavement holds the day’s heat longer and will freeze later and melt sooner.

If you live where it snows, have a plan for how to move that snow and where to put it. If there’s piles of snow every winter, make sure those piles are out of the way and everything still works around them. 

…are comfortable
Maximize sun and southern/southwestern exposure. Make the most of the heat you have.

Use thermal mass to hold heat – stone, brick, and any kind of pavement are what you need, either as walls or on the ground. Don’t forget building walls. These will keep an outdoor space warmer for a while after the sun sets. Again, any kind of dark material absorbs more heat from the sun, giving it the edge here.

Windbreaks, primarily to north/northwest/west. A calm space is a warmer space, because wind chill exists. Plenty of restaurant patios could get another month of use with a simple wind break.

Shelter from snow and ice. Roofs, canopies, and tents can hold in heat and block wind, but they also block the warm sun, so be careful with them. 

Any heat source, including fire. Fire is psychologically warming and hard to resist on a cold night, but it’s also, y’know, fire, so proceed with caution.

Good lighting. Five pm in November is a lot darker than 5 pm in July. Lighting can do a lot to make a space attractive, even magical, in ways it’s not during the daytime, so don’t just go directly for the big floodlights. Lighting comes in cool and warm tones, as well – use warmer tones. ​

Remember: active people are warm people. Social distancing makes this difficult, but if you can, let people move around instead of being stationary. Lots of days are too cold to sit outside, but warm enough to walk. 

Next time: how to take your winter space beyond these basics.

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