Edmonton's Winter City program, which has earned national and international attention and accolades, is on pause due to the pandemic.
The Winter City Initiative began in 2012 with the aim of getting Edmontonians enjoying life outside during the coldest months of the year through outdoor festivals, markets, and other activities. However, it has remained on hold since the pandemic began with some staff temporarily laid off or shuffled to assignments in other city departments.
Simon O'Byrne, a senior vice-president at Stantec who has co-chaired the Winter City initiative for seven years, says he really hopes the City of Edmonton makes Winter City a priority again, and soon.
There is a strong economic case for doing so as the city moves into the winter months, he told CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.
"The time to double down on winter city initiatives is today," O'Byrne said. "Clearly, our main streets in Edmonton and our downtown need a renewed push. Some businesses are really on the brink right now. If COVID is to last longer, which it seems it will, they are not going to survive the winter without an intervention."
O'Byrne said initiatives that Winter City has already worked on, such as all-season patios and making sidewalks pedestrian-friendly during the winter, could go a long way to help businesses survive the months ahead.
Councillor Ben Henderson, the other co-chair of the Winter City committee, confirmed that "ongoing work is paused," but said he remains committed to the work done so far.
"We are aware this winter that making it possible for people to be active outside and enjoy things like outdoor patios, and facilities is going to be more important than ever this winter," Henderson said in an email to CBC.
A spokesperson for the city also confirmed that Winter City is being re-evaluated as are many other city programs during the pandemic.
The future of Winter City could be discussed at council as soon as next week. The entire project is considered a "council initiative," which is one of the items on the agenda for Monday's meeting.
In an interview with Edmonton AM, O'Byrne pointed to some of the business-supporting work done by Winter City in the past years.
"When we started this, it was illegal to have patios after October," he said. "One of the things we changed was making sure that we could do four-season patios."
Since Winter City began, city architects have also started designing their renderings for January, not just July, to meet Winter City design principles, he said.
"You would think, based on architectural renderings a decade ago, that every day was 25 degrees and you'd be in shorts and a T-shirt outside," O'Byrne said. "In fact, winter is our longest season and it's far more important to design Edmonton for winter. If you can make a place in Edmonton a success in January, it will hit it out of the park by July."