Who’s Afraid of a Little Cold Weather?

I was in New York City on a family trip last weekend and visited Bryant Park. I first came to know Bryant Park at the International Downtown Association’s annual conference in 2013, and I fell in love with it. It is one of my favorite public spaces of all time. Given the frozen temperatures of January, I thought that I would be showing off a mostly-closed and deserted park, with explanations like, “Over there, where the empty patch of ground is, that’s where they have live music concerts in the summer.” Imagine my surprise and delight when we got there and were greeted by a rink for free ice skating, a two-story temporary café with top-notch food and spirits, and upbeat music, in addition to several open concessions featuring hot chocolate, chimney cakes and other goodies for a cold day. The park was, of course, packed. There were young, old, accomplished skaters and newbies, families, teens and more. Did I mention that it was only 18 degrees out?

I was amazed at the winter programming. While many parks offer fine programming in the warmer months, they close shop when the thermometer drops. Not Bryant Park. In fact, on some of their 15 foot tall posters, they proudly stated, “Above 40th, below 32°.” (Bryant Park is located between 40th and 42nd streets.) That got me thinking about other cities and how they program for cold weather. Here are a few examples: St. Paul, Minnesota’s Winter Festival; Montreal’s Light Festival; Madison, Wisconsin’s Winterfest; Quebec City’s Winter Carnival; Ottawa’s Interlude Festival; and, Montreal’s Igloo Festival.

I know there are a few examples of outdoor winter festivals or activities in Chicago, such as Loyola University Chicago’s December Polar Palooza, Northalsted Business Alliance’s February week-long Frost Fest, and the Chicago Park District’s December through February Polar Adventure Days. There could be more. Generally speaking, our dance card is full in the summer; add events in off-months and you’re likely to find an enthusiastic group of people who will show up and join in the fun!

Bryant Park is full of lessons for those of us interested in creating memorable, fun and safe urban spaces. I encourage you to visit, if you have the chance. You’ll see a park that went from being a drug haven and symbol of New York City’s decline in the 1970s to the most densely occupied urban park in the world. It’s funding comes entirely from a Business Improvement District, fees from concessions and sponsorships. It doesn’t accept one dime of public funding. And you’ll for yourself see why it remains one of my favorite public spaces of all time.