The winter within: Bringing nordicity to life in parks

Winter represents a season, a space, and an emotion.” (Hamelin, 1999)

The Quebec geographer Louis-Edmond Hamelin (1923-2020) coined the concept of Nordicity by highlighting that winter is a physical and natural season, and a state of mind.


Will this first COVID-19 winter in Canada allow us to finally embrace the concept of Nordicity in our daily lives ?

The art of Nordicity means first and foremost harmonizing our lives with the rhythms of nature. It means slowing down, taking time to rest, to go and play outside, or curl up indoors. It also offers numerous opportunities for us to examine our perceptions, attitudes and behaviours as we face the elements and build seasonal resilience


Snow sculptures designed after the snow storm that hit Montreal in January 2021.


As a winter nation, the season enriches our culture, shapes how we live together, and move about the city. For example, we are seeing a growing number of homemade skating rinks in backyards and laneways. Winter biking has seen a remarkable rise in popularity this winter. Our urban parks are packed with walkers, joggers and people tobogganing, cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. In Montreal, parks have even created the perfect setting for an open-air museum made of snow castles and sculptures


“You have to first come to a better understanding of winter before you can experience it properly.”

2019 – Daniel Chartier, Founder and Director of the Laboratoire international de recherche sur l’imaginaire du Nord, de l’hiver et de l’Arctique.


Urban parks: where winter experiences come together


Our local urban parks are ideal places to explore our Nordicity and where we begin to truly love the city in winter. City parks where we can discover the potential of winter and build warm memories that will open us up to future outdoor adventures.


Winter is unpredictable: be prepared for anything and everything


Winter is a variable and unpredictable season and requires the right gear. The choice of clothing and equipment is key to managing extreme weather conditions, such as cold, ice or slush. 

In order to properly prepare for those unforeseen situations during your daily travels or outings to the park, choose multi-layered clothing and breathable material known for their ability to retain heat (e.g. merino wool).

Being properly outfitted helps ward off the dangers of ice or black ice. Adjustable ice cleats, for example, are one low-cost solution for ensuring that your walks are always safe and enjoyable. 

We are even seeing programs supplying this type of equipment free of charge to seniors to encourage them to go for walks in winter, and also to help them cope with social isolation.


Spend time outside to support your physical and mental wellbeing


To get all the benefits for our mental and physical health, we need to spend at least 10-20 minutes a day outdoors, especially in winter. Of course, this is even truer now in these times of pandemic and lockdown. 

Whether you choose to engage in outdoor activities like photography or winter birdwatching or prefer active transportation like cross country skiing, biking or snowshoeing, you can enjoy additional hours of light and the invigorating and meditative effect of moving about outside in the cold winter air.


Accept winter and the cold at face value 


“In order to change our attitude, we need to become aware that our perception of our surroundings, and the language we use to describe the various phenomena play a key role.” (Pressman 1985, quoted in Zardini 2005.)

Mental Nordicity is a state of mind. It is the acceptance of winter and the cold as they are. Through acceptance, we can mindfully decide to enjoy winter. And to help you do that, here are a few practical tips: 

By adopting these practical strategies and questioning your perceptions of winter and of the cold, you can better understand what brings you pleasure or what concerns you when the cold weather comes. This will help you feel more confident about yourself and about winter. Your journal can also serve as a reminder of the pleasures of winter next time you struggle to step outside.


Look for the beauty in winter


As you bring your children back from school or during a short break from work, take the time to look around and to observe the natural and urban landscapes. Look for white or immaculate banks of snow, snow-covered trees, frozen ponds or rivers, or urban developments that create microclimates (sunshine, wind protection, etc.). 


Montreal Park Jarry swimming pool after a snow storm


This quest for natural and urban beauty is one way to appreciate and contemplate winter every day. 

The ephemeral nature of snow in the city also becomes an opportunity to celebrate and honour it. Take advantage of the next snowfall to enjoy the effects of the slower pace, the calm and the reduced noise. And why not use this opportunity to start the next snow sculpture contest in your local park?


Urban parks: a place made for winter and any season


The more time we spend outdoors in the winter, the more we adapt to the temperatures and the elements, and the more we love this season. Dealing with winter in the city means getting used to the changing seasons that punctuate our lives. 

It is therefore important that our urban spaces be adapted for all seasons, including winter. This is what we call “the seasonal resilience of public spaces”. This phenomenon is taking on ever-increasing importance and is becoming part of the “Winter Cities trend. This movement was born out of a desire to better adapt our urban environment to the reality of winter, to promote innovative practices in urban design and to show the impact resulting from the appropriation of public spaces by local communities, regardless of the season.

Increasingly, tools are being developed for decision-makers, experts and citizens who want to help communities better adapt to the realities of winter. To this end, Montreal has created its Guide Ville d’hiver – Principes et stratégies d’aménagement hivernal du réseau actif d’espaces publics montréalais [winter city guide – principles and strategies for winter development of Montreal’s active network of public spaces].

Getting a better understanding of how our Nordicity is reflected in our daily lives is a continuous process, like the seasons that follow one after the other. But one thing is certain: the pandemic has been giving us a thirst for nature, even after the arrival of winter. Therefore, it is essential that our urban parks and public spaces remain accessible and adapted during the cycle of the seasons.

When the alleyways return the favour: A Montreal TD Park People Grant Project

Accessing urban nature is more important than ever. While all Canadian cities have seen a marked increase in the number of people using parks since the beginning of the pandemic, Montreal has also witnessed  growing interest in its green alleyway projects.  In addition to being safe, engaging community spaces, the alleyways also mitigate the urban heat island effect, reduce road traffic and provide space for urban agriculture.

Building the social fabric, one alleyway at a time

Since March, these green alley oases have continued to be lively places–for children, families, remote workers and simple passers-by. The increased sense of community offered by the alleyways has helped strengthen the social fabric in several Montreal neighbourhoods.

Since 2016, community members involved in the initiative Le carré et sa ruelle [The square and its alleyway] have been greening up the Saint-Dominique-Casgrain alley between Bellechasse and Beaubien streets as well as the Casgrain square. In the first year, several people “adopted” flowerbeds, spearheaded activities, and took ownership of the end lot in the Casgrain square, along Bellechasse street.

When the group members learned that they were among the recipients of the 2020 TD Park People Grant program, they were excited to make something awesome happen and suddenly felt a rush of motivation, explains Camille Lasselin, a member of the Casgrain and Saint-Dominique Streets residents’ committee.

Far from being short of ideas, the pandemic seems to have inspired the group’s creativity. Last June, in compliance with public health measures, they came together with their tools in hand, and got busy building planters and planting flowers. 


A sunny autumn afternoon at The square and its alleyway on Sunday, September 27, 2020. Members of the Casgrain and Saint-Dominique Streets residents’ committee, located in La Petite-Patrie neighbourhood, set up tables, chairs and art supplies for the event called Atelier de peinture botanique [Botanical painting workshop] made possible by the support of the TD Park People Grant.

The challenges of hosting an in-person event during a pandemic

Hélène Lefranc, a member of the residents’ committee, explains that their original promotion strategy was abandoned in favour of a local, invitation only event.  

“Because of the pandemic, the organizers faced several challenges, mostly before the event, like managing the number of participants, and ensuring adequate sanitation of the equipment.”

To keep the event safe, organizers included the following message in all of their promotions:

Given the current situation, we will be strictly enforcing public health recommendations.
– The event will be limited to 25 participants at any given time.
– Physical distancing must be followed.
– Please remember to bring and wear your mask.
– The workshop will be presented every 15 minutes to ensure that everyone can participate while respecting physical distancing.

By using these strict measures, the group was able to offer a botanical painting workshop where people tried their hand at recreating natures colours. 




Looking at urban flora differently

Andrea Williamson, a multidisciplinary artist, introduced the participants to various botanical painting techniques. The goal of the workshop was to help participants better understand the work of botanists by teaching a drawing technique known as “blind contour drawing” that fosters slow observation.

Here’s how the artist describes the workshop: “This technique is based on imagining that our pens trace each shape variation like an ant walking on the contours of a leaf, a stem or a petal. Participants learn how to let the watercolour express itself on paper by applying wet paint on wet paper. They can then observe the spontaneous fluidity and mixing of the colours. They also learn how to mix several shades without losing the vibrancy and freshness of the colours.”

Paintbrushes in hand, both young and young at heart joined together in a collective and creative exercise celebrating the flora that surrounds them: geranium, petunia, Virginia creeper, propolis and other types of trees. This meditative moment of contemplation and gratitude brought to light the amazing plant and human biodiversity of this community.


Thank you to Le Carré et sa ruelle & Andrea Williamson for the photos. 


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