Winter Warmers

In Colorado, outdoor dining concepts are grounded in pragmatism—and the latest public health research.

By Timothy A. Schuler 

Designed for Colorado’s ski resorts, the PARK[AS] concept prioritizes ventilation thanks to feedback from public health officials. Image courtesy Colorado Restaurant Association.
Cities around the country have held design competitions over the past several months, inviting ideas from designers and planners for how to “winterize” outdoor dining. Many of the resulting concepts, however, have been criticized for being impractical or too expensive, partially because of the vacuum created by the typical competition process, in which design teams receive a brief and proceed with limited feedback.

A program run by the state of Colorado in partnership with the Colorado Restaurant Association and the Colorado Restaurant Foundation offers an alternative model. Launched in October, the program has two components. The first is a $1.8 million pot made up of public and private funds that is available to locally owned restaurants (corporate-owned chains are not eligible). The second is a series of design concepts developed for specific spatial conditions, such as sidewalks, parking stalls, closed streets, and rooftops. Where the Colorado initiative diverges from a design competition is in its collaborative and interdisciplinary nature. Each concept was developed during a one-day charrette by a team of landscape architects, architects, and engineers, as well as public health experts, restaurateurs, general contractors, product suppliers, and government officials, all of whom were grouped and assigned one of nine pre-identified conditions by the event organizers.

Teams were tasked with providing warmth and comfort without creating enclosures. Image courtesy Colorado Restaurant Association.

“They did a really good job of making sure that each team had a diverse transect of professionals,” says Kimberly Case, ASLA, a landscape designer at Design Workshop, whose “PARK[AS]” concept involves a modular system of ventilated, hip-roofed pods built out of structural insulated panels.

Tom Klein, ASLA, another landscape designer at Design Workshop who worked on the PARK[AS] concept, says the daylong event differed from other outdoor dining charrettes.

Rooftop C-shaped pods are heated by radiant heating pads and are designed to shed snow and provide ventilation. Image courtesy Colorado Restaurant Association.

Klein joined Design Workshop in August 2020, relocating to Denver from New York City. In New York, Klein had participated in three different charrettes, including one in Washington Heights that was led by the local business improvement district. The absence of city officials meant that the team had to “make a lot of speculative decisions,” Klein says, “and I think that impacted the ability of it to be rapidly deployable. This process was much more holistic in that, in real time, you could get feedback from folks who are in decision-making roles in their municipalities.”

“The District” is a streetscape dining plan that places tented dining pavilions made of wood and polycarbonate sheets along a pedestrian-scaled block. Image courtesy Colorado Restaurant Association.

That feedback led to a variety of less-conventional strategies, including a recommendation by the team focused on rooftop dining to sell branded blankets, sweaters, and beanies to generate additional revenue. Megan Jones Shiotani, ASLA, an associate at Wenk Associates and a member of the rooftop team, says that in addition to the team’s C-shaped pods, which would shed snow while still providing ventilation, they also developed a list of basic strategies for restaurant owners—blocking the wind, for instance, or using materials like wood instead of metal. “It’s much less sexy than architectural igloos, but realistically I think it was a little bit more attainable,” she says.

Providing amenities for outdoor winter recreation is something that many cities were considering prior to the pandemic, and as with the rise of remote work, the pandemic could accelerate the trend. As early as September, faced with the onset of fall and winter amid rising case counts, American media seized on the Norwegian concept of friluftsliv, which roughly translated means “open-air living” and refers to an all-seasons approach to the outdoors. It’s a shift Jones Shiotani says designers can help encourage. “There’s more that we can do in public spaces to celebrate the winter experience,” she says, “especially in cities.”

Timothy A. Schuler, the editor of NOW, can be reached at and on Twitter @Timothy_Schuler.

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