How to Host an Outdoor Public Consultation…In the Dead of Winter

It’s February and it’s freezing. You’re standing on the street. People are bundled up with their heads down, scurrying to their next destination. Your job is to get them to stop and talk about how to improve streets and public spaces during the winter.

What do you do?

If you think the answer involves giving away free hot drinks, you’re on the right track.

With funding from the Knight Foundation, 8 80 Cities partnered with the City of Saint Paul, Friendly Streets Initiative, and the Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation to conduct a series of outdoor engagements to understand how Saint Paul can become more comfortable, active, and fun for everyone during the winter. In the process, we tested out some simple winter placemaking ideas to demonstrate that there is in fact a latent demand for small-scale, urban “winterventions”.

We call the project Wintermission. The engagement results will inform a Wintermission Strategy and Toolkit, which can be used by city leaders and engaged citizens to increase the ease and appeal of walking, biking, and spending time outside throughout winter.

If you live in a winter city and need to host a community consultation, consider mixing things up by hosting it outdoors. Some simple tips for making it a success include:

1. Go places where people already go.

This is a general 8 80 Cities rule that applies year-round. It rings even truer during the winter, when people are less likely than other seasons to travel out of their way to attend an event. Our most popular engagement took place at lunchtime on a busy pedestrian corridor in downtown Saint Paul.

2. Pair-up or piggyback.

Team up with another winter event. We set up one of our engagements next to Little Box Sauna in Como Park. Our inviting table with engagement materials made it easier to build awareness about the purpose of the sauna among passersby. A winter win-win!

3. Warm people up.

Whether you’re offering a warm space or a hot beverage, people are more likely to pause and talk if you provide warmth in exchange. Offering free coffee and hot chocolate is an inexpensive way to draw people in and to thank them for their time. Simple infrastructure like a propane heater or fire pit encourages lingering. We took it a step further and gave out s’more kits, which were a hit with people young and old. Don’t forget to check in with your fire department to see what the bylaws are around hosting open fires.

4. Make music.

Winter tends to be a quieter time outside, so music will go a long way towards drawing people in. If you are considering having live music, keep in mind that some instruments can withstand the cold better than others.

5. Move it.

Attract people to the engagement by providing an activity that gets them moving. Ping-pong worked really well for us. You can play it in a puffy jacket and work up a good sweat. Our large-format chessboard was much less popular because it involved a lot less movement and a lot more idling in the cold — not as fun.

6. Use bright and visually engaging materials.

Leave the traditional paper surveys at home. Catch people’s attention with bright, large-format engagement materials that they can interact with, even while wearing gloves.

7. Have a back-up plan.

Winter weather can be even more unpredictable and extreme than summer weather. In our experience, it was the wind, not the cold that made outdoor winter engagements extra-challenging. Come equipped with heavy-duty tape, paperweights, and other creative tools to prevent your materials from flapping in the wind or flying away! In case worst comes to worst, have a back-up indoor space to hold your engagement.

Do you have any ideas for making an outdoor winter public engagement a success? Let us know in the comment section!

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