BY JASON THOMPSON
With fresh snow on the ground and a chill in the air, many Sudburians are reminded how much they dislike winter. Systems design engineering student Kirsten Robinson is betting her Sudbury Streets Skins project could warm their attitude.
Street Skins, a tent over public spaces, could transform a cold winter environment into a warm public space, free from snow and wind, creating an environmentally friendly micro-climate all year long.
The skins would be made from ecologically friendly transparent material called Texlon and act as an outdoor roof, protecting against the elements and trapping the heat in. The tented shape and slick Texlon surface means falling snow will slide right off the skins to be collected.
Alternatively, during summer months the skins could also keep the covered space cool, trapping in cold air generated by air-conditioners and using as little electricity as possible.
?It would be like a Victoria-type of climate where you could have flowers and trees growing much longer and greener and stretching into the winter,? she said.
The world of design hasn?t looked over the Sudbury Street Skins project. It was awarded with second place in the Design Exchange?s national Design for the Cold competition. An exhibition of winners? ideas has been on display this month at the Design Exchange in Toronto.
The aim of the Design for the Cold competition is to change the way Canadians look at winter, and to possibly identify design solutions appropriate to winter environments. The competition pays special attention to ideas that would benefit those with physical disabilities who may have difficulty dealing with the winter elements.
When city planners held public consultations on downtown revitalization last spring, Kirsten took part and began thinking about the possibilities for Greater Sudbury.
?We started thinking about what happens in northern cities in the winter and realized that more than anything else, what you lose is the public space,? Kirsten said.
Cold weather means people stay inside and a sense of community is lost.
?It?s all the parks and the walkways and the places that bring the community together,? she said.
The Sudbury Street Skins Project looks specifically at how covering a section of the downtown core, centered around the Durham St. and Larch St. intersection.
The skins would be held in place by steel supports allowing Sudburians to enjoy a comfortable warm and environmentally friendly space suitable for markets, festivals and community events year-round.
One aspect of the design competition was making the idea universally accessible, Kirsten said.
?In the winter, people who have difficulty walking . . . have a hard time stepping over curbs because they?re afraid they?ll slip,? she said. ?You get rid of all of those problems without getting rid of sunlight.?
It could really enhance the quality of life for people at the Older Adults Centre during winter months, she adds.
Kirsten is a student at the University of Waterloo.
She will be the first to admit that although she was team leader, the project was a family affair with contributions from her sister, Erica, and her father, David Robinson, an economics professor at Laurentian University.
Economically, her dad said the skins project is sustainable, helping to pay for itself in a few years. In addition to saving money on heating and cooling costs, the creation of a unique tourist attraction for the downtown, generating revenue as a result of the bars, restaurants and retail stores along Durham St.
At about $70 a foot for Texlon, the cost of the project is dependent on the how big it is.
It?s almost like an outdoor mall, Robinson said. ?The bigger you make it the more efficient it becomes.?
?There?s enough capacity to get started on this project without renovating the infrastructure,? he said. ?It will support people living downtown while in turn makes the downtown more viable.
?The problem isn?t technology, it isn?t economics, it?s leadership,? said Robinson.
Team Robinson agrees that social engineering is the next step for the project, to get the public thinking about how to improve the space and build on the street skins idea.
The idea of having wireless Internet access available in the space to attract a professional crowd, or having coin-operated gas fireplaces, where people could sit and enjoy the warmth and share the heat with everyone else under the tent.
Robinson said a number of major, progressive North American cities, including Philadelphia and San Fransisco have free wireless Internet access in their downtown.