Monday, February 18, 2013

Cities sufferin from the chillies

Grand Rapids Transit Center, looking wintery. Photo by Carolyn.

This weekend, my homeskillet and I went over to Grand Rapids to hang out with his folks. I really like GR but I'm still not an expert on it, so I asked him to show me around downtown some more. We parked over by the transit center and began walking, ready for an urban adventure.

I looked over at him as we passed Founder's and he was crying.


"'s cold."

That's right, folks, the temps off Lake Michigan can make a proud man cry and reduce our exploration time from the estimated couple hours to fifteen face-burning minutes. We'd already been to a bar the night before and didn't want to spend any more money, so we headed back over to his parents' house where we could enjoy free macaroni and cheese, homemade cookies, and warm blankets.

This is nothing new, right? In a Bloomberg piece last year that rather obnoxiously used baseball teams to symbolize the superiority of San Francisco over Detroit,  Edward Glaeser drew our attention to the weather, among other factors: "San Francisco also has better weather, and temperature in January is yet another predictor of urban success." Richard Florida, however, counters this in a report, informing us that most "systematic studies have concluded that climate has little, if any, effect on regional growth."

(Side note: if Glaeser and Florida were Pokémon waged against each other in battle, who would win?)

I don't know who's right. As the aforementioned weeper himself says, he'd love to live in California, but the things that tie him to Michigan (family, friends) are stronger forces than weather.

The Vegetable Snowman of Redford. Photo by Carolyn or her familiars.

Still, winter can hurt everything from municipal finance (snowplows, vroom) to obesity rates (does anyone feel like running a 5k with snot icicles and snowshoes?). Then there's the effect on downtowns that should feel bustling and alive. Suddenly your city is taking on an apocalyptic feel. Gone are the leisurely strollers, the sidewalk cafes, the picnickers at the riverfront. The only people you encounter are bundled up more modest than a nun and cursing their geographical stars.

Although the fulness of global warming will see Michigan sitting pretty with a balmy climate and metropolises that haven't sunk into the sea, at the moment we're stuck with. I think we can work with it though. Or at least - it doesn't have to be as devastating a factor as people make it out to be. Cities like Grand Rapids and Detroit could be leaders in figuring out how to leverage the chillier months.

As a veteran at walking outside in serious cold for long periods of time, I feel equipped to offer some suggestions.

Indoor public space/attractions - Last time I talked about public spaces, and that specter has returned. Maybe this goes back to the now-obsolescent idea of the community center. If there were some place where we could sit down and look at the river and buy hot chocolate if we want to but not have to buy hot chocolate if we're feeling too poor. Even if there were little tents set up on street corners with space heaters and hot water in styrofoam cups.

Guides - for what to do in the city in the winter - scavenger hunts that take people outside in between indoor attractions.

Events - Detroit's Winter Blast is an excellent example, albeit one that struggles every year to get the funding to exist. The problem is that no one comes back the rest of the winter.

What to do while skipping class in Ann Arbor. Photo by Carolyn's friend Jo.

Force people outside - these skywalk things, snazzy as they are, are stupid. Ann Arbor doesn't feel so much winter-desolate because it's full of students who have to wade through snowdrifts in order to pass your classes. If you want people on the streets, make it hard for them to do anything else.

Ice skating - Any cold city that doesn't have an ice skating rink downtown is completely crazy, especially given the relative ease with which they can be turned into parks in the summer. GR and Detroit already have this going on, but what's with Traverse City? When I was there I would have paid five bucks to slide around on a bit of ice downtown.

Of course, most cities are on life support and can't afford to think about frivolities like this. But if you're wondering how to avoid winter wastelands, this is my best guess. Any ideas from the audience? I WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU!

1 comment:

  1. We have friends who are going to Chicago this weekend with their kids. I thought, Chicago? Now? Why not go in the summer? (You may perhaps know that I am not a person who is inclined to traipse around in freezing temperatures.) They are going now because of the school break, I think. And come to think of it, we had an extended family gathering around there one New Year's and took a trip into town.

    I thought about what they will do there, which will probably involve stores and museums. So, it seems, if there are plenty of things to do inside (maybe this fits into your "indoor space" category), people will brave the elements to go between them. And then you will have a lot of people walking around on city streets in their hats and mittens and scarves.

    I guess that's what lures us to Noel Night in Detroit. So many cool, yet warm places to go! And, roasted candied almonds.

    But I'm about ready for spring now...