I was invited to tour playgrounds in the Minneapolis area at the end of October, which being from California, the cold temperatures in Minnesota actually frightened me a bit. Until this January, I had never experienced single digit temperatures, but knowing I should not miss this great opportunity, I packed my bags. It was an amazing trip and as all designers know, visiting a new place broadens your thinking and can invigorate creativity within. Make no mistake, the landscape was already heading into winter. At times we experienced sleet, snow, temperatures in the low teens, and wind like tiny knife blades! But through all of this, I still had the ‘a-ha’ experience that made the cold worth it. In fact, the cold is part of the ‘a-ha’ as I sit at home on yet another snow day in the infancy of 2018 and reflect back on this trip.
Touring the parks and playgrounds in the cold weather, I was amazed to see families enjoying and playing and to this day I’ve been asking myself, what is it that brought them outside in the weather? An obvious answer (although not obvious to me until I saw them – again, I’m a California native) was snow gear. So simple, the whole family was dressed head to toe in snow clothes. I’ve never seen families wearing snow clothes to a park in North Carolina, nor has it ever occurred to me when we have cabin fever to pull ours on and go to a park. Second, another obvious reason would be cabin fever itself compels one to brave the elements. When the weather is cold for months at a time, a day in the teens with a weak sun shining offers no excuse for not getting out.
So with the obvious answers out of the way, the questions I have been asking myself are: what would compel a family to drag out the snow gear and seek a particular park in the frigid temperatures? How can I make a park or playground a destination on the coldest winter days? Experiencing a climate where I am uncomfortable has also allowed me to step aside from the fear and negativity I associate with climate change and extreme weather and view the potential for more regular and colder winter events as an opportunity to incorporate elements into park designs to become a destination place for a unique experience on the coldest days of the year. For example, one park we visited had an organically shaped paved area with a raised planter in the center. The entire area was depressed four inches into the ground which defined a space for movable tables and chairs in warm weather. Then in winter by adding a little water, the area becomes a place to ice skate. This innovative and resourceful idea could easily be done here in North Carolina where the occasion of a freeze would be uncommon enough to create the build-up and excitement to encourage the public to come out and enjoy the manmade ice rink. For example, you’ve probably all seen the local news station that gets excited when their fountain freezes and actually shows footage during the news casts. A municipality could do something similar and build hype over social media when the temperatures enables the skate area to open. Including a cooling system to sustain the ice could be also be an option when viewed from the standpoint of park use on a daily basis vs. a fair weather destination. The town or city could include hot beverage concessions or food truck hook ups making the setting perfect for hours of fun despite the cold. The City of Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department is already making steps towards embracing the cold weather and snow with their recent event at Dorothea Dix Park where they provided free sleds to the public for a fun sledding event!
I am sure I am missing some road blocks that prevent such designs in our public spaces in North Carolina, but the trip and changing climate have provided that new perspective. It has also inspired me to search for answers and find solutions to remove these road blocks and to design places that have a surprise element and make them every day destinations vs. everyday.