What will it take to embrace winter patios in Edmonton?

Will the pandemic result in more restaurants creating warm, welcoming outdoor spaces?

Of all the businesses feeling the sting of the pandemic, perhaps none have been hit harder than the restaurant industry.

At its outset last March, Nathan McLaughlin (Cook ’04) and his business partner at Edmonton restaurants Next Act Pub, Meat and Pip were forced to lay off 110 employees.

“It was definitely the hardest day of our lives,” says McLaughlin, chef and co-owner of the Old Strathcona eateries.

As the weather warmed and public health restrictions relaxed, the restaurant group eventually hired back 98% of its staff. A key part of the businesses’ resurgence, he says, were loyal customers hungry for dining spaces that made socialization as safe as possible. At Next Act, new temporary rules for patios that were implemented by the city to help restaurants through the pandemic allowed the business to expand onto the sidewalk and triple its outdoor seating capacity.

“It definitely helped a lot,” says McLaughlin.

As the days grow colder and darker, restaurants across the city are considering whether to winterize outdoor spaces for expanded seating and choice for customers leery of indoor dining.

McLaughlin says they’ve spent the past couple of weeks installing new propane firepits on their patios and they’re mulling options such as temporary coverings. But they’re unsure how far to go. Edmonton may bill itself as a “winter city” but the reality is that only a handful of local eateries have created year-round outdoor dining spaces.

If McLaughlin spends the money to build a winter patio, will anyone actually come?

The answer may depend on design. Restaurateurs and customers alike will need to fully embrace the idea of a winter city, says Landscape Architectural Technology chair Jennifer Jones (class of ’05). Here, she discusses what it will take to redefine “patio season” in Edmonton, and preserve precious revenue-generating space for an industry that needs it most.

Patios don’t have to be complicated

patio, meat, old strathcona, edmonton

According to Jones, designing a winter patio, whether for a restaurant or at home, needn’t be complicated or cost-prohibitive. But it does require paying attention to five basic elements: wind, sun, lighting, colour and infrastructure.

These categories, from Edmonton’s winter design guidelines, are taught to NAIT students as part of a winter city design course launched last year. Jones designed the curriculum to introduce students to urban design concepts that can be applied to spaces for use year-round.

“If you’re addressing the wind, you’re providing warmth.”

“This is a new conversation for our region but there are northern countries like Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland that have been doing this forever,” she says.

When it comes to patio designs for winter, Jones says spaces on the south side of a building can take advantage of warmth from sunshine and block bone-chilling winds blowing from the northwest. “If you’re addressing the wind, you’re providing warmth.”

Fencing and temporary screening also help keep drafts away, but so can natural design features such as coniferous trees. Awnings can also help block frigid down-drafts from tall buildings.

Bring the heat and light

propane firepit at next act pub, edmontonInfrastructure such as propane heaters and fireplaces are typically the only way to introduce heat to such spaces, Jones says. “From an aesthetic perspective I always prefer wood burning, but you can’t always go by aesthetics. It comes down to function.”

When the sun sets in the early afternoon, lighting and colour become other critical elements to creating a welcoming space. Low-cost elements like an umbrella can add a pop of brightness and a sense of enclosure, she says.

If a patio just isn’t an option, Jones says restaurant owners might consider other ideas such as a pickup window for takeout or selling hot chocolate to help embrace winter.

“You don’t have to do everything.”

New identity for Edmonton?

skating a victoria park oval, edmonton river valley

Jones points to examples such as the year-round patio at Cafe Bicyclette and the iceway at Victoria Park and skating trails at Borden Park as great examples of spaces and design that are “changing people’s attitudes about what a winter experience is,” she says.

“This could be Edmonton’s identity – that we’re a winter city."

“This could be Edmonton’s identity – that we’re a winter city. If we embrace various levels of design, where no matter where you go in winter, you’re having a comfortable time … that could be a great personality for a city.”

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