Design in a Dismal Climate

“Gray day. Everything is gray. I watch. But nothing moves today.”
– Dr. Seuss

It all started when I needed a place to eat my lunch. As a strong believer in the lunch break, I noticed that I had been skipping my noontime intermission. Our resilient foodcart owners are still peddling tom kha soup, but where do I go to eat it?

Winter in the Pacific Northwest can often be discouraging. There are days when you wake up and the sky never brightens. Despite the dismal nature of Portland’s prolonged rainy season, there are those who are quite content to live here, cloudy skies and all.

Foodcarts | Downtown PDX

Foodcarts | Downtown PDX

But personally, I would like to thrive in February. So I began to think about my environment, about what works and what doesn’t. How does my daily experience differ today than, say, a 75-degree day in July? When are my senses stimulated? When am I actually comfortable? Do I see my friends, or do I hunker down like a recluse? Where exactly do I spend my time on a bone chilling, cloud cloaked day?

And then I began to wonder, is it possible that in a place lauded for its progressive planning and design, that Portland is actually lacking in spaces that favor our particular climate?

I want to ask Ray Oldenburg, where is my winter “third place?” Third places “host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work.” These third places can vary in scale, can be indoors or out, but they must be convenient and commodious.

Our public parks, including Portland’s “Living Room” (Pioneer Courthouse Square), are far from comfortable on many winter days. There is no cover from the rain, no protection from the wind. It’s no picnic. For a climate that has more marginal weather than not, I dream of being able to be near people, have shelter, have prospect, throughout the year.

I am an interior designer in our hospitality studio. So where do I go? The hotel lobby. Designed for lingering, these public spaces are inviting and available. Ace Hotel, The Governor, and the Nines all have ample seating, spots to be seen, nooks to tuck into, and adjacent cafes.

photo: Ashley Tacket

Ace Hotel | Portland

Another wintertime favorite is the petite embrace of Courier Coffee. What it lacks in warm materials, it makes up for in warm beverages, vibrant streetscape, and large, south-facing windows.

These are just a few of my favorites. I am more interested in learning about best practices from others. How does Portland compare to other cities in accommodating winter weather?

Our northern neighbors in Edmonton have developed an entire series of winter design strategies. Denver created a free urban ski park. These snowy destinations have made an asset out of their winter climate. But what about a city whose wealth lies in cloud cover and rainfall? Pocket parks with fire pits? Loitering at the library?

I’m aware of the good spots in the Pacific Northwest, but am still curious about what’s being tested outside of our region. To our kinfolk in London and Copenhagen: to where do you retreat on a dark, dismal day? I’m looking for places that accommodate twelve months of satisfaction. Please write in and share your experiences.

And stay tuned for a detailed climate analysis of Portland. We will attempt to quantify “dismal.”

Courier Coffee Roasters

Courier Coffee Roasters

all photos by Ashley Tackett

Hat tip to Kasey Klimes, with Gehl Architects in Copenhagen, for his Twitter response to this topic:


Thanks for highlighting the culture aspect of this design challenge! Your comment reminded us of this article by the Build LLC folks up in Seattle: 10 Things We Learned in Scandinavia.


  1. As they say in Norway, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only inadequate clothing”. While eventually Scandinavian countries embraced outdoor third places even in winter (assisted by heaters to be sure) this is not something I tend to see in Portland. I wonder if it is the raininess which hinders an outdoor spirit, despite our comparatively mild temperatures. I definitely see places like Powell’s packed along the wide windows of World Cup Coffee seemingly year round, though it is only an interior environment… I am also interested in the forthcoming analysis – thank you for the post!

    • Ashley Tackett says |

      Katrina, thanks for sharing one of your favorite winter haunts!
      We’re still looking for more input on seasonally appropriate spaces, both indoors and out. In the meantime, stay tuned for our upcoming climate study…

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