OPINION: Embracing Winter – Hoisting a beer vs skating, skiing, shoeing

Despite our best intentions, are we really going to sit out on a patio - even during COVID - or will we partake in outdoor activities instead?

Winter cyclist in Calgary. THE CITY OF CALGARY


It seems like every fall in Calgary there is a cry by some hardy “patio people” to leave our sidewalk patios open in the winter like they do Scandinavian cities?

This year there is even more pressure to keep them open. There’s the need for social distancing, thanks to COVID.

As someone who managed the patios on Stephen Avenue for 10 years, my experience was that once late September comes, just a few diehards want to eat and drink on the patios.

RELATED: ‘This won’t be a normal winter’: Plan in the works to take the chill off Calgary communities

Obviously, Stephen Avenue might not be the best place for winter patios as it gets no sun on the sidewalk from October to May.

However, a City Centre walkabout (10 Avenue SW, 17 Ave and Kensington) on the afternoon of Oct. 10, on a sunny and balmy (20C) day, I found that other than the Ship & Anchor, most patios had few patrons.

What does that tell you?

If they aren’t busy on a warm autumn day…

If the patios aren’t busy on a nice Saturday afternoon in early Fall, what are the chances they will be busy in the middle of winter when it is -10C or lower.

Yes, we get Chinooks. They’re unpredictable and often the temperature rises to a comfortable temperature for only an hour or so in the afternoon.

People love to say one thing and do another. They say they’d use
patios if they were open in the winter, but then rarely do.

In reality, there is likely only a small number of people who would actually use outdoor patios in Calgary in the late fall, winter and early spring.

They’re all at the Ship & Anchor as soon as the weather is appropriate.

Let’s give the restauranteurs and bar operators some credit. If
there was sufficient demand for outdoor patios, they would be lobbying to kept them open. They aren’t.

They know the cost to winterize and operate the patios wouldn’t be offset by their use.

A 2020 Calgary Business Improvement Areas’ survey of patio operators found 50 per cent of patio operators would consider winterizing their patios. However, 54 per cent indicated the cost would be in excess of $30,000.

The cost-to-benefit just isn’t there.

Scandinavian Winter Patio Experience

I contacted Tony Totino, a former Calgarian who now lives in Oslo, Norway to get his perspective. Totino offered the following view:

“To be honest, I don’t think Scandinavians actually embrace the outdoor winter street cafes idea at all.

That sounds a bit more like Switzerland or perhaps alpine France. In winter, Norwegians are obsessed with cross-country skiing. In the wilderness areas surrounding Oslo on any given weekend in the snow months there are more people out skiing on the hundreds of kilometres of
prepared ski trails than walking in the downtown.

The trails are dotted with seasonal cafes that serve coffee, hot drinks, waffles and warm, sweet buns, etc.

So if you want to sit in an outdoor cafe during winter in Norway, you’ll have to ski there.”

In Oslo, embracing winter is more of a recreational experience, rather than sitting on patios in downtown.

That’s the same in Winnipeg. The Forks’ warming huts are for the skaters enjoying the 7.5 kilometre skating trail.

Yes, there is an outdoor eating drinking area, but it’s linked to the large indoor space where people can easily go and warm up.

Winter + physical activity = fun

Perhaps the lesson to be learned is winter fun is usually combined with physical activity that allows people to keep moving, rather than sitting for long periods of time.

Calgary’s equivalent to Norway’s cross-country ski trails would be WinSport’s Canada Olympic Park where thousands of Calgarians go to ski and snowboard in the winter.

Ironically, WinSport had to suspend the sales of season passes in the third week of October this year due to unprecedented demand.

Skiers can use several parks in the city that open to cross-country skiing. Or perhaps Bowness Park with its skating rink, fire pits and café with outdoor patio.

One could also make a trip to the Canmore Nordic Centre.

If Calgary wants to create an urban winter experience it should probably be along the Bow River Pathway from St. Patrick’s Island to Prince’s Island.

It would make sense to have warming huts all along the pathway. Walkers, runners and cyclists could enjoy them for a bit and then continue on.

Or perhaps Olympic Plaza would be a good place to start. It has the skating rink, ample room for food trucks and easy access to Calgary Transit. The lobby of Art Commons could be converted into a huge warming hut with a Christmas market-like feel.

Facing Reality

Since the 1988 Winter Olympics, various Calgary organizations have tried to create a major winter festival. Most attempts have failed – be it at Olympic Plaza, Fort Calgary, Canada Olympic Park or along Stephen Avenue.

Why?

The weather is too unpredictable. either it’s too cold or too hot.

I expect Calgary’s winter people are heading to the mountains most weekends or heading to the community ice rink (there are over 100 of them).

That leaves the indoor people to wander the malls or the +15 system walkway on cold days in the winter.

Is there a message here? Calgary’s climate is not conducive to urban outdoor winter activities.

Chinook Blast

Calgary has experimented with “Glow” a winter light show that has been quite popular in attracting Calgarians to come downtown for one weekend in the winter.

The results have been so encouraging that Calgary Tourism and the City of Calgary announced plans in early 2020 for a six-week winter festival – The Chinook Blast – from mid-January to the end of February 2021.

The plan was for upwards of 55 community arts and recreation groups to link existing and new events across the City to create a major winter festival.

However, these events will be more indoors than outdoors. And, unfortunately, the planned launch in 2021 may have to wait until
the COVID pandemic is over.

Last Word

I do applaud the efforts of those championing the idea of more winter patios along Calgary’s pedestrian streets.

I think, however, need to face the reality that in Calgary, there are a hardy few who would support winter patios.

Most of the winter people are out skiing and skating or doing something – like snowshoeing – to stay warm in our chilly months.

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