Learn from Snowstorms

Photo courtesy of Jason Cooper, www.kaboom.org

Next month, DesignInquiry convenes on the Maine island of Vinalhaven to investigate the topic of JOY. Alex Gilliam reflects on the joys of winter weather as a catalyst for better learning, civic engagement and the design of our cities.

This essay originally appeared on Core77

‘When it snows, children take over the city: they sleigh, throw snowballs, make snowmen and are more visible than ever. But what a city needs for its children has to be more durable than snow.’

It is hard not to adore this quote by the architect and playground designer Aldo Van Eyck. Of course there is the simple beauty and wonderment that we all feel when we first poke our head from under the covers, and gaze out the frosty window. But more than this, the first major snowstorms are so utterly magical because they completely reset what was true just a few hours before. Hard becomes soft, what was formerly loud is now a mere murmur, boundaries are erased, wide shrinks to narrow and decades of layered infrastructure, and regulation disappear in just a few short hours. These are some of the few days each year that are universally filled with possibility; where without hesitation you can play in the streets, you can easily reshape the world around you without permission and deeply satisfying challenges abound everywhere.

Now that the weather is finally turning pleasant (in Chicago at least), it’s a rather painful proposition to even mention the word, ‘snow’ but consider for a moment how much micro-experimentation, learning and innovation occur on these days; the jury rigged sled, the simple lever you devised for extricating your car from the ditch, the surprisingly tasty meal you were forced to cobble together from all that was left in the cupboard.

Don’t forget the collaboration that occurred when crafting that snow fort or digging out the block with neighbors when city services fell by the wayside. With the roads made a little narrower and a degree more uncertain by piles of snow, surely you noticed how much more carefully and, at times, considerately people were driving even when the roads themselves were quite clear. Heck, the driver of a passing car may have even waved.

Remember how extra-attuned your muscles and senses were when walking down those icy steps?

Please tell me you haven’t forgotten your whooping and hollering as you slid down the hill your children dragged you up or the deep contentment you felt while carving out a path to and from your house, despite the cold biting against your face. How about the empowerment and satisfaction you found while carving the shortest path to the store?

Now, consider how very different this experience is from how we typically engage with and participate in making the places we live; how completely opposite this is from the design of our educational system; and how our cities are designed.

When surveys, scantron test sheets and powerpoint presentations are the tools of the trade, it’s little wonder that our schools are suffering, public participation in planning processes is minimal at best and the great white hopes of innovation are not big corporations but the garage start-ups that are being fueled by the rise of open source movement, and low-cost rapid prototyping tools (both, virtual snowstorms). When our streets are designed to be as safe and efficient as possible for cars is it really that surprising that their ease of use and the resulting boredom encourages such bad behavior as text messaging or that drivers are surprised by such aberrations as a cyclist?

‘Things won are done; joy’s soul lies in the doing.’ William Shakespeare

It should come as no surprise that one of the most difficult, yet compelling lessons from Van Eyck’s snowstorm is the value of making things a little harder, a bit more complicated, a hair more messy and a lot more wondrous……for our own good.

At the very core of this ‘mess’, snow demonstrates that we can and should create situations that ask more of people, individually and collectively; that challenge, meaning and connection are often more important than ease. It reminds us of the value of designing opportunities that encourage a sense of innocence and opportunity, taking advantage of the transformative power of ‘doing’, and the deep seated desire of people to positively impact the world around them. Quite frankly it is remarkable that we ever forgot, but snow helps us remember how powerful and important it is for people to be able to see the tangible fruits of their efforts. And unlike the average classroom, sidewalk or planning meeting, snow reminds us of how satisfying it is to use our full host of mental and physical faculties to solve a problem, learn or traverse the landscape at hand.

It reminds us that we can expect more, much more.

Aldo Van Eyck was wrong. It’s not just our children that need a permanently snowy city, we could all benefit from a little lingering snow.

A cheerleader of possibility, Alex Gilliam is the founder of Public Workshop, an organization dedicated to helping individuals, schools, and communities achieve great things through design. Public Workshop creates projects, tools and events that help people positively change the places they live, work and play.