Residential Snow

Residential Snow: How winter is experienced in residential-home neighborhoods

As I continue to how we experience snow, I want to reflect in this essay on how Americans experience snow in neighborhoods primarily made up of residential homes. How do such private spaces shape our experience of winter? What opportunities (like the ability to look at snow-covered lawns) do they provide to appreciate snow?

Much of the space in the places where Americans spend most of their ‘home’-time consists of residential space, taken up by single-household detached homes. These plots take up much of the land in the suburbs, as well as notable proportions of cities and small towns. (As well as being home to most of the home-experiences of many residents in the portions of our rural and exurban places, those who primarily spend time in their yards rather than other land they own.)

A key aspect of such neighborhoods is that they primarily consist of private spaces for each houseowner. In these places, snow is experienced and managed on a series of small plots of land, on which the homeowners can choose how to manage snow.

While residents have a lot of control over their land, there are places where residents have little discretion about how to manage snow. The driveways are private, yes. But basically all of them are managed the same – residents do not have much of a choice, they need to remove most of the snow and ice from the driveway soon after it covers the driveway.

Some public spaces do exist in these areas. For instance, perhaps the primary experience of such spaces involves driving on public roads. Given that these areas tend to be auto-reliant in the modern U.S. (particularly given how long it would take to walk to public transit, or locations outside the neighborhood), driveways and roads take up significant proportions of the landscape.

Perhaps the least appealing parts of winter have to do with driving, and with the need to maintain these spaces for cars. Think of the effort spent shoveling driveways, and the dangers of driving during wintry weather. Visually, roads are perhaps the least appealing areas of the snowscape – the grey-spotted piles along the roadside, the slushy zones which lend themselves to splattering and to freezing over. Our transportation systems direct us to spend a lot of time on these roads (particularly if one lives in one of these neighborhoods), sitting near the ugliest parts of winter.

In some neighborhoods, sidewalks (or other paths, for bikes and walking and other uses) exist, but that depends on the neighborhood. How those spaces can be used also varies significantly – often, they are either inaccessible (when residents don’t shovel their section), slippery (given frequent melting and icing over), and/or require effort to trod through in boots (if not cleared carefully enough). So while these areas can offer a different kind of experience of snow in such neighborhoods, they do not always do so in practice. (Instead, people often end up walking in the streets – which can be as unpleasant, as I noted above.)

What might we think about as we walk on such sidewalks? Footprints on the sidewalk can be fun marks to observe. They show that others have been out – and perhaps we can see signs of play that suggest some of our neighbors enjoyed their walk! Paw prints demonstrate that dogs have been walked here. (Indeed, I might write an entire post reflecting on the role dog-walking plays in shaping the experience of winter.) Sidewalks can also lead us to think about community and responsibility – how responsible are people in such areas for helping keep their community’s paths open for their neighbors?

Parks also play an important role, here as elsewhere. Having a park one can walk to on a snowy day can make a big difference in whether that day is experienced as a special treat, or as a day when a person is confined with little space for play. Homeownership offers the opportunity to let children play in a yard, so those possessing private spaces for winter appreciation don’t need public spaces as much. (Contrast this with denser urban areas – those who in live in apartments have a greater need for public spaces, if they want to experience nature.) But for other opportunities, particularly those which adults and teenagers would enjoy, the accessibility of a park is still a big deal. I regularly see children sledding down a hill in a local park; sledding basically requires parkspace. How many of these children can walk to the park with their sleds, and how many have to be driven there? How easy is it to walk or drive there if the streets have only been partly cleared? Similarly, the ability to take a walk through a snow-covered park might enable someone to feel much more enclosed in the experience of snow than walking down the street, or looking out at one’s backyard, does.

I grew up here. I spent my youth seeing these lawns covered with snow. These are atypical smooth sweeps of snow, of the kind only found in a limited number of places, particularly outside of rural areas. Often, households appear to have a pretty limited interest in using the outdoor space during winter. (Particularly if they do not have children; I discuss children’s uses of snow below.) Even in wild fields and farm fields, we do not tend to see such sweeps of snow, because the grasses there have not been not mowed down as much as the grasses in residential areas have been, so there is more vertical contrast.

The impression lawns leave is actually a pretty memorable one. For weeks at a time, the landscape stays white instead of green. These spaces are much more appealing to look at than the snow on the streets. And they take up much of the landscape. One can dreamily look over these mini-fields in the morning, or as one enjoys the warmth of the indoors at night. One can feel enclosed in a small refuge, surrounded by the cold and the reflective snow.

If kids aren’t playing in it, the snow is often just left alone. Adults tend to have little interest in managing what their lawnspace looks like during winter. People do a lot to manage the lawn during summer, but when growing season ends and snow falls, things change. I sometimes amuse myself when I look into such lawns as I ride by by noting what types of lawn furniture, grills, toys and more have a layer of snow on them, and what that covering transforms them into.

Trees can offer appealing visual markers, when residents have them. They provide contrast and interest to the landscape. When (non-evergreen) trees lose leaves during winter, residential (as well as business and shopping areas) look quite different. There is less of a sense of green space, more of a sense that humans and their buildings dominate the landscape. We can see through to things that we couldn’t see when leaves were in way. But even bare trees are particularly exciting during and after certain snowfalls, since their branches can hold snow, which leads to some of the most beautiful winter moments. Evergreens, of course, have a special relationship to Christmas, and we are thus particularly fond of looking at them during winter.

One group does often make use of this turf – children. Building snowmen, building snowforts, running around during snowball fights, playing catch with a football – these and other activities leave their tracks on the lawns. Particularly for a younger child, given their size, these lawns can feel like pretty ample canvases for transformation, and mark off a notable distance from the surrounding houses.

So how do we experience nature in these areas, which take up so much of the space Americans regularly inhabit? Most residents stay indoors most of the time during winter. They can, if they choose to, be inspired by the snow on their lawns. Most adult residents do little with the snow other than clearing it from paths – the driveway and a path to the front door and/or mailbox. Most of their experience of snow here is confined to their own lawn, and to the roads. Children find opportunities for play, but adults typically spend little time outside their yard, unless they are going for a run or walking the dog.

There are opportunities to appreciate certain kinds of winter beauty, particularly that of trees and bushes covered in snow above a flat plane of snow on the lawn. I hope that residents in these neighborhoods will remember to take those opportunities – I hope they remember to keep looking out at the beauty of the world around them during wintertime.

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
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