November 1, 2021

Successful visions for downtowns include numerous opportunities for public activity throughout the winter months and focus on local assets, identity and character. It takes an engaged community to embrace and mobilize those assets.

As more and more people can choose where to live on the basis of local culture, an inviting, active downtown year ‘round is increasingly important. We all know winter can be a bit challenging in Iowa! Changing our mental attitude to embrace all that winter has to offer – from the shorter days and colder temps to the glistening sun shining off a new fallen snow – is the first step. Downtown economic development professionals can be valuable partners to do simply that! 

Not only are we hoping to create a community attractive to residents, but there are also social and economic benefits to winter placemaking activities. Connecting socially improves both physical and mental health, and a well-rounded activity calendar in the downtown provides opportunities for making those social connections. When people connect socially downtown it also benefits the local economy. The added foot traffic, during what is traditionally a slower time of year, creates an opportunity for businesses to connect with their customers and potentially increase sales. 

So, what makes a downtown inviting during the winter? Following are the top three: 

Accessibility: Snow and ice management policies can make or break accessibility to businesses. Make it a priority to clear downtown streets and parking areas, shovel sidewalks, building entryways and street corners in a timely manner. Not all customers have the same level of mobility. Work with business owners to ensure all customers have safe access to businesses at all times of the day. Is your downtown accessible by bike, walking or public transit during the winter? Is it well lit? Do a walking audit after the first snowfall to identify problem areas and correct them. 

Storytelling: Get outside and take pictures of activity on the sidewalks, in the stores and on the streets. Keep your messages positive on social media. Take photos of a freshly shoveled sidewalk or freshly plowed street after a large snow and post a thank you to those working to keep downtown open and accessible for customers. Share events and activities happening downtown on social media and in traditional media outlets. Have fun with hashtags - the top five last winter were: #wintervibes #winterwonderland #winterwalk #instacold #winteriscoming. Celebrate downtown activities through storytelling! 

Programming: Have a winter theme and program activities around it during January and February. Extend winter events over longer periods of time to allow for weather fluctuations. Host a seasonal window display contest and encourage public participation. Create photo ops and selfie stations to coordinate with the theme. Host a makers-market in a vacant building – or really embrace the season and do it outdoors. Work with bars and restaurants to generate ongoing winter activity such as pool leagues, dart leagues, chili-crawl, etc. Work with merchants and host complementary activities such as a winter run club hosted by a store that sells running shoes, or a weekly story time hosted by a store catering to children’s goods. Tie special events into those ongoing activities. Highlight and promote what is unique about your downtown during the winter. Close the street and host an outdoor movie series, drive in style. The possibilities are endless! 

A PBS placemaking study has shown that if people are given the chance to do something they enjoy doing, they will bundle up and go outside to do it, even when it is freezing. No matter the weather or time of year, when you focus on community building activities, everyone wins.
For a deeper dive into a successful winter vision for your downtown, there are two sources that are particularly helpful. One is Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s Winter Strategies for Downtown Districts and the other is 8 80 Cities Winter Placemaking Guide.

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