Winter, COVID and outdoor spaces: What local governments can do to keep their constituents outside and active during the winter months

Jacob Cramer is a Researcher & Planning Assistant with BC Healthy Communities.
Claire Sauvage Mar is a former Grants & Engagement Coordinator with BC Healthy Communities.

Note: Public health orders in B.C. are currently changing frequently. The advice below may not always reflect current orders. For the most up-to-date guidance, always check the Government of B.C.’s health orders and list of restrictions before developing policies and programs such as those below.

To reduce COVID-19 transmission, public health officials have encouraged us to get outside more. For many of us, it’s been easy to be active and social while physically distancing thanks to the good-weather months of spring and summer. Time outside, particularly time in natural environments, also provides an array of other health and well-being benefits. But as we move into colder months and respiratory season, it’s crucial we don’t lose access to this important resource. Thankfully, local governments can take action to make it easier for their constituents to continue to get outside and be active throughout the winter months. 

Now that the weather is changing and we’re digging out our heaviest, warmest coats, we’re getting the sense that the province is getting ready to winter-in-place… and possibly not venture outdoors much. A recent Living Streets survey asked British Columbians about changes to their walking habits as a result of the pandemic, and found that weather and darkness were the two most significant factors for discouraging walking. Worries about crowded public spaces followed closely behind.

As a nation who prides ourselves on our wintery resolve, let’s put on our thinking toques and take a visit to other communities to see what they’re doing to improve outdoor access this winter and beyond.

Applying a Winter Lens – Regardless of the time of year, when developing policies or initiatives, local governments can apply a winter lens. According to the Canadian Institute of Planning, “a winter lens is simply a way of seeing developments and designs from a winter perspective. If a streetscape, open space or amenity is designed with winter in mind, it will be comfortable in all seasons. Winter should be considered at the beginning of the design process, not treated as an after-thought at the end.”

Food in Parks – It’s old news that food has the power to bring community members together. In the colder months, food provides sustenance and warmth while encouraging people to linger a bit longer outdoors; think mittens and hot chocolate. Local governments can consider keeping the food and drink flowing straight through to spring with concession stands, food trucks and beverage carts. Harnessing the power of temporary use permits, such as those in the Regional District of Nanaimo, also allows local entrepreneurs the flexibility they need to dish out warmth to the community as they embrace the cold weather outside.   

Friendly Competition – Local governments can look for ways to encourage a mix of physical activity, social connectedness and the great outdoors. As part of their Winter City Strategy, the City of Fort St. John gave out city-branded gloves and scarves to community members who were seen going the extra mile, clearing snow from the driveways and sidewalks out front of neighbours who need support with such strenuous activity. What a great way to harness the power of community champions!

Equitable Snow Plowing – Snowdrift-free streets boost people’s ability to move about their community and access all forms of services and spaces, including natural environments.The Village of Wells, for example, engaged with older adults to identify and prioritize clearing snow from routes that were high traffic for this demographic. By reexamining which routes needed to be cleared first, the Village supported older community members with the ease and access necessary for them to participate in social and physical activities. 

Clothing Drives/Swaps – Investing in winter clothing can be expensive. Finding non-stigmatizing ways to get good-quality outerwear to families and individuals who struggle to make ends meet will make a huge difference this year. As the Norwegians say, “there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” Whether it’s event space or promotion of the event, local governments in B.C. can emulate the City of Guelph by supporting a large-scale clothing swap (in a responsible, physically-distanced manner). With more community members having weather-appropriate clothing, municipalities will encourage neighbourly connections as well as safer and more comfortable access to the outdoors. 

Active School Travel – Getting kids out the door and into the classroom is a herculean task for families. And while it may seem like an especially daunting activity during winter months, walking and wheeling to school has never been more valuable. Active school travel infuses extra time outdoors into daily routines, while boosting physical and mental well-being. Local governments can encourage active school travel by connecting with their school boards to develop strategies and information their community members need to get moving. They can also collaborate with schools in their area with BCHC’s newly-launched Active School Travel Pilot Program.

Fire Pits – One of the best tools we have for making our outdoor spaces warmer and more inviting during colder months is also one of the oldest human activities: gathering around a fire. When safe and accessible, outdoor fires in both public and private settings can encourage community members to stick to the outdoors when they socialize this winter. Local governments can make sure their community has accessible information on where and how they can safely have fires on their property. Even better, cities like Edmonton have equipped some of their reservable park and outdoor public spaces with free fire pits to help activate and enliven these spaces when blanketed with frost and snow.  

Lighting – Cities like Saskatoon have been investing in decorative lighting in public spaces to encourage use and allow people to feel safe outside at all times of the year. Winter time lighting can go beyond decorative and festive exhibits to provide greater functionality and safety for park users. The Town of Banff passed a resolution on Seasonal Winter Lighting, which is a great example for local governments seeking to do similar placemaking projects in their area to encourage community connectedness as well as economic activity as days grow shorter.


Winter placemaking can be as complicated as a full Winter City Strategy, or as simple as making the colder and darker winter months a little more inviting through decoration, lighting, activities or amenities.


Awnings and Protected Patios – For many, heated patios and protective awnings may bring to mind a friend’s backyard or a Sunday brunch. It’s important to remember, however, not all community members have the privilege of a backyard or money to spend on dining out. How can local governments can adapt these types of design strategies to public spaces that encourage physical activity and interaction with natural environments? We’d love to see a heated or well-lit awning, or another non-walled warming area, at the beginning of a public walking trail. You’d probably be more willing to take on the adventure of a hike knowing you have a way to warm back up upon your return.

Winter City Strategies – Winter City Strategies are plans containing principles, policies and practices that guide communities in activating their public spaces, including natural environments, through all four seasons. They can be a powerful, high-level strategy tool to encourage forward-thinking planning. There are many ways a local government may choose to engage its citizens and organize the community’s contributions. For example, the City of Saskatoon broke its recent Strategy into three themes: Winter Economy, Winter Culture and Life and Winter Design. The City of Edmonton created a document focused on winter design guidelines, perfect to share with interested municipal staff. 

How your local government applies a Winter Lens in the face of COVID-19 depends on you. Each community is different, and the effects of cold weather vary from region to region. We hope that the list above has given some ideas for encouraging your community to use, rather than dread, the great outdoors this winter. 


Get more information on how local governments can create equitable, sustainable, health-promoting natural environments in our new Healthy Natural Environments Action Guide, available via our PlanH program.

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