What Central Park taught me about Appreciating Winter in the City

Last January, I had the chance to visit New York City for the first time. As a champion of winter appreciation in the city (see my “Why write about winter in the city”), I of course was curious to see how I might experience winter in our nation’s largest city. I feel that I got a nice sampler – there was a little snow left when we arrived, which mostly melted… and then our stay ended with a snowfall, which I particularly enjoyed during a magical afternoon in Central Park.

Here are some of the conclusions which, after that trip, I reached about what cities can do to help create a space for people to appreciate snow.

1. Create a destination that enables fun during winter, and winter appreciation. Central Park is clearly a draw, a place that people want to go to. There is a lot here to appreciate, a lot to entice people to come here. This is the kind of place that can motivate people to get outside during winter.

2. Make that place accessible. Particularly to public transportation. I was able to take the subway right to the edge of Central Park. On a day when it was snowing, that was convenient. If we want to be able to appreciate the beauty of winter, it helps to be able to easily get to the more beautiful locations.

On the other hand, in other cities I have found it more difficult to appreciate the snow. I regularly will think ‘I should go check out the snow in X park’… but then realize ‘oh, but where would I park’? We shouldn’t have to rely on driving our cars to get to a park where we can enjoy nature. We shouldn’t have to worry about driving – perhaps the least enjoyable part of winter in American cities! – in order to get to a place where we can appreciate winter.

3. Have a diverse range of places to appreciate. Central Park has both plazas and forests. It has a “ramble” which provides a ‘wilder’ feeling, and it also has a little castle to climb. Not to mention the broader experience of New York City, which has this great park, but also smaller neighborhood ones. It also has spaces which draw people out in public like Times Square, and plenty of streets on which to watch people.

Not everyone will be drawn to the same kind of winter experience, so provide a variety of options. One of the strengths of urban life is its ability to provide a lot of diversity of people and experiences within a relatively small area. (And to, as my previous point suggests, make it relatively easy to travel to via sustainable transportation.)

4. Have enough park space. In downtown areas, there is often little space to appreciate snow. There are few places where snow can be left to accumulate. Roads, sidewalks, and buildings take up so much of the space of a downtown area that there is little space left on downtown streets. When those areas are cleared of snow, where do we spot snow? (That is a question I tend to spend a fair amount of time on, when I head out to take pictures of snow in the city!) The amount of ledges, and plaza spaces, is pretty limited. It is hard to feel like one is in a winter city – and hard to appreciate snow – if one cannot see snow. So parkspace, with lawn or plaza space where the snow can be left setting where it fell, plays a notable role.

This can come from a lot of small park spaces, or it can come from large ones like Central Park. (Here in Wisconsin, UW-Madison’s Arboretum performs a similar impressive function, as does Whitnall Park in Milwaukee County.) This feel might come from greenway-type paths, although the planners would need to manage the greenway in a way that leaves greenspace which will not be cleared of snow.

5. Be creative – have visitors doing creative things. We saw a tiny snowman, a few inches tall, which proved memorable and cute. Larger snowmen do the trick too. We were surprised and amused to see someone posing in a pink tutu while the snow fell. These kinds of clever acts – not even necessarily large ones – help provide community warmth and charm, and give a sense that people are out, and looking to have fun, during winter.

This includes people enjoying themselves doing normal activities like taking engagement photos. Seeing people participate in such activities both gives a sense that such activities go on – and provides a neat glimpse of how they look when snow is falling, a different spin on the activity.

Walking in Central Park reminded me of how important a role our public parks play in enabling our appreciation of winter. I hope that cities across the snow belt can help their residents appreciate their cities, year-round, by providing the space, creativity, and diversity which help open us up to what the seasons have to offer!


About MilwaukeeSnow

Dr. Jeffrey Filipiak, Milwaukee's Ambassador of Snow, loves winter, Milwaukee, and environmental history! He has taught college courses on topics including history, writing, environmental ethics, food studies, the Great Lakes, and sustainability. You can contact him at ambassadorofsnow@gmail.com.
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