Published October 1, 1999 | October 1999 issue
Renowned for long, cold winters, states in the Upper Midwest have long battled negative perceptions. But a few organizations in Michigan's Upper Peninsula (U.P.) are looking at the potential utility of the region's cold weather as a tool to attract economic development, as well as ways for improving October-to-May quality of life for residents there.
"It's time that we stop being apologetic for the weather in our region," said Patrick Coleman, president of the international Winter Cities Association (WCA) and planning division manager of U.P. Engineers & Architects Inc. The WCA is a global nonprofit group headquartered in Canada, whose goal is to help northern cities become more livable and to turn their reputation from a liability to an asset.
"The first thing that must be done is a change of attitude," Coleman said. "Citizens of cold regions must realize that the discomforts of winters are a problem that can be addressed and a solution can be found. When this change does take place not only will living conditions improve, but the economy will as well."
The problem, according to the WCA, is that the cities above the 45th parallelthe top quarter of the worldhave civil planning and product design that are similar to cities in warmer climates. Marquette, for instance, receives over 200 inches of snow per year. "It just goes against common sense that I should live in a city that has civil planning and products that can be found in Atlanta," Coleman said.
The WCA is not alone in this push for civil planning and product design for northern reaches. Suomi International College of Art and Design in Houghton, Mich., is researching and developing products customized to the region. Still in its beginning stages, the program challenges students to invent innovative products that would help tame the cold climate.
"It seems like common sense to have these products available to the region," said Mike Skelton, the director of the course offered at Suomi. "Yet we are one of few institutions working on improving the quality of life in northern cities."
Developing products and civil planning that weave winter into the fabric of northern cities has a lot of potential positive economic effects on the region, Skelton said, because the region offers many unique features for research and development. NASA, for example, often tested equipment in the Midwest to prepare for its use in outer space. "Why not develop products where they can be readily tested?" Skelton said.
Currently in the works is a redesigned heated transport shelter that would shield passengers from the winter elements. Another initiative is an automatic shoe and lower-pant cleaner that would be placed at entryways to both homes and businesses.
"Doesn't it seem to just make common sense that a bus shelter in Duluth should not be modeled after one in the South?" Skelton said. "That is the proposition, and it seems like it merits more attention and effort than it is receiving now." Once a product is developed, Skelton said, Suomi College will approach a regional manufacturer to make it available to the local public, and to other regions if successful.
Coleman said such product development would not only improve economic activity and the region's standard of living, but also the region's quality of life. "The region has four very distinct seasons all with their individual advantages, even winter. It is time for the region to do away with the winter's foreboding reputation and start fashioning an image of winter carnivals, skiing and white pristine landscapes."