Is Saskatoon a ‘winter city’?

Henry Feldkamp doesn’t mind that his big idea – a climatecontrolled glass atrium covering a section of the downtown -has taken on an almost cartoon-like existence since he unveiled it 15 years ago.

“Whatever people perceive is what they perceive,” Feldkamp said this week, sitting in the eighth-floor conference room of the downtown office tower where he’s the president of a consulting firm. “People take an idea and put it into their frame. Maybe it was a little before its time.”

Feldkamp, alongside then-Saskatoon city councillor Don Atchison, proposed with much fanfare building an $80-million glass atrium that would cover 21st Street from the Delta Bessborough to Midtown Plaza, and Second Avenue from 19th Street to 22nd Street.

As designed by Feldkamp, “Atreos,” which it was dubbed, would be constructed with unbreakable, two-paned glass heated by solar panels. The structure would rise to 10 storeys at its peak and boast 40,000 square metres of roof area.

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Much like a railway station, city life would go on in climate-controlled comfort underneath the glass canopy.

The idea has reached the status of local lore since it was proposed in 1996 and Atchison has taken the brunt of the ridicule and ribbing for supporting the idea of “doming the downtown.”

Were they crazy? That depends who you ask.

At the heart of the matter, though, is the question that spurred Feldkamp to propose the idea: How can Saskatoon’s extreme climate be overcome? The respected and well-travelled civil engineer was driven by the desire to create a more livable city year-round, a place people can gather despite temperatures that can reach -40 C during a lengthy, often harsh winter.

“People need creature comfort,” Feldkamp said. “The question is, what does it take to get people to congregate and stay for longer than a business trip? You need a society that functions face-to-face. This was an idea, a kernel, of giving people a place to socialize in a cold climate.”

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A growing movement during the last 30 years is spreading the notion that northern cities would be much warmer, livelier and happier places if they embraced the cold and the snow, rather than resisted it.

Patrick Coleman has been at the front-end of the movement. The Michigan-based architect launched the Winter Cities Institute, which encourages cold weather cities to create urban environments that celebrate winter, reflecting and encouraging a more positive attitude toward the dominant season.

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Our urban landscape is to blame for how we feel about winter, Coleman says.

“It’s a lot of little things that can make a difference in how people perceive winter,” he said this week. “It’s all the dirt and the slush that can be an awful experience driving on the street or trying to walk inside. It’s slushy, messy and your shoes get wrecked. You can’t keep your car clean. These are minor things . . . but at the moment they seem really important to people. And because of these perceptions, people are bailing out on cities and moving to warmer climates, or at least that’s the perception anyway.”

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