COVID Place making
March 27, 2020

Covid-19 sparks Retail Revolution in Wilton UK

Wilton UK with a population of 3,600 is tucked in the southwest of England. It’s the place where Wilton carpets came from and has been an Anglo Saxon settlement for over one thousand years.

There’s no church here so the local pub called The Swan serves as the community centre. Its closure due to Covid-19 coupled with reduced train service to London might look problematic to outsiders. But as The Economist points out, technology and village good will stepped in.

“A new local WhatsApp group is flooded with messages offering to pick up food or prescriptions for the elderly or to walk other people’s dogs and news bulletins: loo paper available in Tesco in Marlborough, potatoes now for sale on the market stall, newspaper deliveries still happening intermittently.”

The proprietor of the local closed pub ingeniously revamped the premises as a “pop-up shop selling vegetables, fruit, milk, bread and even (wonders!) local eggs. Wine is priced at a flat £10 a bottle. ”

Being British and not wanting to endanger his pub licence, the pub owner worried about overstepping regulations, but his premise repurposing met with local authority approval.  With a maximum of two customers  in the store at any one time, he’s also selling takeout meals. And surprise! The venture is taking off.

Even the local wheat farmer is upbeat, as the crisis has made his crop more desirable with a lot of it already sold.

While it would appear that losing amenities would lessen community contacts, in this case it appears to have strengthened them.

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In the Bad News Good News Department, the City of Sydney Australia is finally getting automated pedestrian crossing in their major downtown intersections, because of the Covid-19 virus crisis.

If you are unfamiliar with Australian politics, the State and the City do not get along and have different agendas when it comes to cities. The State has control of the highway network and is still in the 20th century model of moving vehicles quickly and efficiently, with secondary thought to pedestrians. You would think with 90 percent of movement in the downtown being by pedestrians that they would have priority at intersections. But no. Pedestrians have long waits, and automation of crossings only during the day. Other times there are push buttons that still don’t activate crossing in a timely fashion and there’s no standardized automatically set intervals for crossing.

Until now.

In this article by News 7 Sydney,  Mayor Clover Moore said pedestrian buttons “would not need to be pushed for the foreseeable future”, as the state government , which has control of major arterials in the city has made the signal changes for pedestrians and cyclists.

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Finally there is starting to be a backlash to dollar stores which have pretty much usurped the vacated landscape of retail stores in commercial areas. For a while planners used to say that if there was a dollar store on a block, you knew that the area’s commercial square footage was cheap, as it was seen as one of the most marginal businesses around.

But Dollar Stores have become the new normal, providing items often at a fraction of the cost of other retail stores. In the United States the two largest dollar store operators have 30,000 locations, a 33 percent increase in a decade. Now they are coming under scrutiny for squeezing out local retail and reinforcing food deserts and accessibility to healthy and fresh food for locals.

As dollar stores sweep across America, they are facing growing scrutiny from opponents who argue that discount chains stifle local competition and limit poor communities’ access to healthy food.

Critics say that the dollar stores cluster in lower income neighbourhoods and squeeze out competition, making it challenging for local grocery stores. While dollar stores have junk food and colas, they don’t have milk and fresh vegetables and fruit.

Dollar stores always do well during economic recessions, and continue to thrive in areas where people do not have rising incomes.

Here’s the dollar store’s strategy as reported by CNN’s Nathaniel Meyersohn: “While the economy is doing very well, our core customer continues to struggle,” Dollar General chief executive Todd Vasos told analysts last year. The company’s core customers earn around $40,000 a year or below, $20,000 below the median income.
Dollar General caters mainly to low-and-middle-income customers in rural and suburban areas. Dollar Tree targets suburban, middle-income shoppers, while Family Dollar focuses on lower-income urban and rural customers.
Dollar General looks to build stores in rural areas where a big box retailer or grocery store is not within 15 or 20 miles. Around 75% of Dollar General stores are in towns with 20,000 or fewer people, and the chain has its biggest footprint in southern states. (Dollar General has more stores in Texas alone than Costco and Whole Foods do combined.)

Dollar stores can open quickly and use one quarter of the space of the traditional grocery store. They also function with minimal staffing as compared to a grocery store.

Viewed as a plus in rural areas with no access to other stores, Dollar General and Dollar tree plan to open another 24,000 locations. But there is now a  push against these retailers, with Birmingham Alabama not allowing new dollar stores to open within a mile of other dollar store locations. This is to attract and encourage grocery stores in the denser parts of the city which have food deserts

The cities of New Orleans, Cleveland and Fort Worth Texas are also examining restricting dollar stores in their boundaries.

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A group of Vancouverites who work in trauma and counselling have been circulating an email asking their friends for their favourite poems or prose that helped at a time of crisis. Among the poems being circulated is this one from  poet Naomi Shihab Nye, which was sent in by a librarian.

These are difficult times for everyone from many standpoints. This poem was a favourite of the crisis workers. The images are by photographer Ken Ohrn.

The Song

From somewhere
A calm musical note arrives.
You balance it on your tongue,
a single ripe grape,
till your whole body glistens.
In the space between breaths
You apply it any wound
and the wound heals.

Soon the nights will lengthen,
you will lean into the year humming like a saw.
You will fill the lamps with kerosene,
knowing somewhere a line breaks,
a city goes black,
people dig for candles in the bottom drawer.
You will be ready. You will use the song like a match.
It will fill your rooms
opening rooms of its own
so you sing, I did not know
my house was this large.

~ Naomi Shihab Nye

Images: Ken Ohrn

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Physical distancing for the Covid-19 virus has been an issue in the impoverished Downtown Eastside of Vancouver where the street functions as the community’s living room.  Many residents of this area live in the SROs’ (single room occupant) hotels in the area. These offer a room with a shared bathroom for the entire floor.

CBC’s Angela Jung has written this article indicating that the City of Vancouver is reserving hotel rooms for individuals who are homeless or using shelters that may need physical isolation  because of the Covid-19 virus.

The City has been working with Vancouver Coastal Health and BC Housing to co-ordinate care and support for the downtown eastside community.

Existing services have been sharply curtailed because of the Covid-19 virus, including places where people could get food or use the washroom. While the City has added 12 handwashing stations in the area, they have not provided any toilets for local residents to use.  Of the handwashing stations, four have already been stolen, and three have been recovered.

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Why do we think we can only use parks in  groups of people? As Philadelphia Inquirer’s Inga Saffron writes, as more cities and towns are issued stay-at-home orders over the viral spread of COVID-19, we have to

“recalibrate our relationship with our beloved public spaces if we are going to survive this plague. We’ve been using city parks as if everything were normal. By now we should understand that everything is not normal. Like so many other treasured aspects of urban life — from crowded sidewalks to noisy ball games — parks are no longer working for us.”

Parks were the  “last available social refuge, a safe space where we could go to be with people who are not part of our immediate families, the only remaining cure for our cabin fever. But in following our natural desire to be among fellow humans, we failed to recognize the danger signs.”

Those danger signs are the mingling closer to 1.5 meters or six feet, which allows the COVID-19 virus to spread.

It’s also against our nature not to move closer to talk directly with people. And that’s where the push-pull of public and park spaces become challenging.

“Because it’s so hard to be social and practice social (physical) distancing at the same time, its going to take mindful behaviour modification to adjust to the new reality. So how can we use parks and open spaces responsibly?”

As Philadelphia’s Director of Parks and Recreation Kathryn Ott Lovell points out parks are central to people’s lives and an essential service.  Parks also have been places where people mingled at turbulent times. They were used (as in Vancouver’s Sunset Beach) for memorial quilts during the AIDS epidemic and are used for vigils . With playgrounds being closed to keep children from close contact, parks and being able to use them individually or in small family units is now more important than ever.

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I was talking with Gordon Price who is just finishing his Australian tour in Melbourne. We were discussing the AIDS epidemic where we first met. We  both worked on policy supporting people with AIDS and their families~I worked for Dr. John Blatherwick as a health planner and was on the Mayor’s Task Force on AIDS.

Gordon Campbell was mayor and he formed a committee of  business leaders to bring the epidemic front and center  to Vancouver’s work community. This group travelled to San Francisco and experienced first hand the need for immediate specialized services, triage, housing and hospice.   In the early days of AIDS no one really knew how it was spread, causing a lot of fear and panic in the community.  AIDS also was a disease that did a zoonotic jump, from chimps to humans. Globally 32 million people have died from AIDS since the virus was first discovered.

AIDs had a different course in Vancouver than other major cities. The gay community came forward and formed several organizations to get the message out about how the virus was transmitted, and worked tirelessly to create specialized services and follow up. It was this active advocacy and continued strong consistent messaging that meant the disease was more contained in Vancouver. In the 1980’s AIDS  did not spread rapidly to other risk groups as other cities experienced.

The COVID-19 virus is also a zoonotic introduction, most probably from horseshoe bats. Like AIDS was perceived forty years ago, there is as of this date no known way to stop the course of the COVID-19  virus other than having a community agree to physically distance from each other. That seems to be challenging for many people.

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart expressed frustration with the fact that citizens were still clustering and crowding in public spaces. Mayor Stewart stated on Sunday that people had to  “Shut down, stay put, save lives.”

The alternative would be an order that required people to stay in their residences. That would be all the time except for essential trips.

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Last year I wrote about an American named Bill Heine who became the “local character” in Oxford Great Britain.Heine ran two cinema houses, and had garnered a law degree before turning to movies.

In 1986 Mr. Heine had a Big Idea and for some reason  commissioned the building of a huge headless fibreglass shark which he craned to the top of his house. The timing of his installation of a headless shark on the roof of his 1860 British townhouse was the  “41st anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki.” The piece was created by artist John Buckley. Mr. Heine tried to say that his headless shark was a political statement. The shark weighs 400 pounds and is 25 feet from its tail to the top of its headless body.

The good citizens of Oxford were apoplectic about this shark among the roofs, and as   this web page on the Hedlington Shark attests  the local Oxford city council sprung into action.

You can read about that debacle here. The story spoiler is that Mr. Heine got to keep the shark,  with an appeal tribunal stating that this was not about the fact the shark did not blend in to the surrounding historic roofscape but rather the individualism that the shark did NOT blend in the historic roofscape. You can’t make this stuff up.

The Hedlington Shark is now a historic significant monument. But what are the chances that a local Price Tags Vancouver reader actually interviewed Bill Heine in person? And that this interview was published in People Magazine?

Dianna Waggoner wrote this piece in 1987:

The neighbors should have seen it coming. When Bill Heine, a 42-year-old American from Batavia, Ill. moved onto High Street in quiet little Heading-ton, England, he already had a reputation for strange roof embellishments. First he had stuck a pair of plaster arms above his movie house in nearby Oxford. Next he had put a pair of humorous, black-and-white-stockinged legs atop a second theater. Last spring, shortly after buying his brick house on High Street, he pulled his best trick yet. One Saturday neighbors awoke to see a 25-foot, fiberglass shark sculpture being towed through town by a farm tractor. Sure enough, before the day was out, the shark was up there on the roof, right above the ivy and the pots of geraniums, head-down in the shingles. What did the neighbors make of that?

“Downright disgusting,” observed Irene Williams from her front yard.

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