• Installation of melting system for sidewalks in Holland, Mich. (Photo courtesy of the City of Holland)

If you have ever spent time in some of Canada's cities during the colder months, you will know that Walking in a Winter Wonderland can be overrated. The slush. The ice. The snow. Water, in its various frozen forms, turns a downtown area into an inaccessible mess.

The City of Saskatoon has proposed a way around this undesirable phenomenon: heated sidewalks. Among the ideas for creating a more pedestrian-friendly downtown are sidewalks that would melt snow as it makes contact with the ground. No plowing or salting required.

“We know it can be done,” says Paul Whitenect, who is with the City of Saskatoon. “How we do it, how we finance it and where we do it are really some things we'll have to build out.”

The answers to these questions may lie with Holland, Mich., where heated sidewalks have been a reality since 1988. On the east shore of Lake Michigan, Holland is the recipient of an average of 1.9 metres of snow annually. But more than 46,400 square metres — or the equivalent of around five to six blocks — in the downtown core remain snow-free year-round.

“It revitalized the downtown,” says Ted Siler, Operations Director at the Holland Board of Public Works. Where once shoppers were banished to the mall at the edge of town, the slush-less sidewalks brought shops back into the centre of town and consumers followed. “It's been a real boon, an economic help for the downtown area.”

The melting system works by capturing heat from Holland’s coal-fired power plant. Water pumped in from nearby Lake Macatawa cools the high-pressure, turbine-spinning steam from the plant, causing it to condense back into its liquid form. As the lake water runs through the condenser, it takes on much of the heat from the steam.

The heated lake water, at around 32 C, is jetted through a series of pipes that zigzag beneath the sidewalks and streets of the city centre. The heat is able to melt almost four centimetres of snow per hour at -9 C or higher. If it is much colder or snowing particularly hard, the snow can accumulate. Siler says it just takes time for the system to “catch-up.”

This is just one way to power a snow melt system. In Reykjavik, Iceland, hot springs are not just luxuries. Known for its volcanic activity, the city heats houses and sidewalks with geothermal energy from the springs. Using residual heat from city buildings is another possibility.

Saskatoon will begin to consider all their options.

“We have to quit thinking about hibernating when winter rolls around,” Whitenect says. “You can still get outdoors.”