COVID Place making
April 1, 2020

Closing Streets for Walking and Rolling~If Calgary and Winnipeg Can Do It, Why Can’t We?

The idea of closing roads for pedestrians and cyclists is nothing new. The popular Ciclovia which originated decades ago in Bogota Colombia closes streets to vehicular traffic on weekends in many South American cities. Residents take over the streets for strolling, rolling and cycling. Bogota’s ciclovia runs on Sundays until 2:00 p.m. and also on major holidays. I have participated in ciclovias in Lima Peru and in Quito Ecuador where major thoroughfares are closed, providing “open streets” for active transportation on Sundays.

The COVID-19 pandemic provides an unique opportunity to rethink our use of major streets. While the Province’s Medical Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry encourages walking and rolling for exercise and mental and physical health, she is also cognizant that people need to stay six feet or two meters apart in their small family groups.

That’s where the problem is. As I have written earlier,  sidewalks in Vancouver are just not wide enough. The standard for new sidewalks varies from 1.2 meters wide to 1.8 meters wide and does not offer enough space for two people to pass each other safely with  the Covid-19 required distance.  Sure you can spill onto the street, but that’s not something someone with a baby carriage or assistive device can curb jump to do.

It also is telling how clumsy we are at imagineering more space for pedestrians. We know how to put in bike lanes adjacent to sidewalks , but we just are not good at giving walkers and rollers more space.

But look at Calgary and Winnipeg.  Madeline Smith of the Calgary Herald reports the City of Calgary is doing a demonstration test by closing six major roadways on weekends to give their citizens places to walk. They are all located close to where people live, and provide an opportunity to get out and exercise with close family members without worrying about being too close to other people. If you are familiar with Calgary, you will appreciate the scale of the closures, which are listed here.

The Mayor of Calgary Naheed Nishi made it clear that the street closures were for exercise, and not for crowded gatherings of any kind. And he provides a very clear rationale for why these weekend closures are happening-to keep physical distance and to allow people to exercise.

“It’s going to be much more along the lines of just making sure that if we need to use roadway space so that people have room, we will do so.”

In the Calgary case, the routes run close to parks and the river valley, offering people the chance to make a loop during their exercise routines. With an  effective first closure, Calgary is looking at extending these closures for weekends during the pandemic.

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The province of Nova Scotia has come up with the slogan “Exercise, don’t socialize” to describe the new behaviour required of people in public. During the Covid-19 crisis everyone is being asked to practice physical distancing, staying  two meters or six feet away from people when outside your home.

But as anyone that has tried to walk or roll  with the required physical distancing of two meters will know, the sidewalks in Vancouver are just not wide enough. The standard for new sidewalks varies from 1.2 meters wide to 1.8 meters wide and does not offer enough space for two people to pass each other safely with  the Covid-19 required distance.

Walking is good for  you to maintain physical and mental health, and is encouraged by Dr. Bonnie Henry, the Province’s Medical Health Officer in this video clip by Emad Agahi with  CTV News.

The Globe and Mail’s Oliver Moore has written that both Toronto and Vancouver are examining ways to make some parts of the street network  closed to vehicular movement to allow pedestrians to spill out into some streets for recreation and to maintain the required physical distancing.

The thinking behind walking on connected streets has already been done in Vancouver where 25 years ago the Urban Landscape Taskforce composed of interested citizens, several who were landscape architects, came up with the ambitious Greenways Plan.

I have previously written about this extraordinary plan that came from the work of these citizens. What they termed “greenways” are actually a network of “green streets” that link traffic calmed ability accessible streets with good amenities to schools, parks, shops and services. There are 140 kilometers of greenways, with a network of fourteen city greenways that go boundary to boundary in Vancouver. The pattern language was derived from the Seawall and the Seaside Greenway route which provides Vancouverites with routes near water and forms one quarter of the whole network.

The original intent was to have a city greenway go through each neighbourhood and be a 25 minute walk or a ten minute bike ride from every residence.

The Greenway network plan was quietly backburnered  during Vision’s political reign at city hall in favour of bike routes.  But these traffic calmed routes that have sidewalks, connections to parks with restrooms, curb drops on corners to facilitate accessibility , wayfinding and public art still exist. You may have walked or biked down Ontario Street or 37th Avenue (the Ridgeway Greenway from Pacific Spirit Park to Central Park in Burnaby)  which form two of the routes. Downtown, Carrall Street is also a greenway.

These streets lend themselves well to closure for all but local traffic and emergency vehicles. That was the intent when they were first conceived, that they could be closed for pedestrian and biking use. And as the city develops, these streets may be permanently closed in the future,  forming new linear parks in a densifying city fifty years in the future.

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Price Tags really is about active transportation advocacy but I have had a reminder from a few health care providers that during the COVID-19 pandemic things are a bit different.

People working in the Emergency and Critical Care sections of hospitals that are potentially exposed to COVID-19 should NOT be taking transit, and physical distancing by walking/cycling at night is often not an option. Couple that with a reduced transit schedule and longer hours, and the question becomes~should we be charging these health care workers for parking during the crisis?

There is already a local petition circulating asking for free parking for health care workers who are now working longer hours than a normal twelve hour shift, and dealing with stressful situations related to the pandemic.

Joe Pinkstone of the Daily Mail reports on the JustPark app in Great Britain that allows hospital staff to park close to hospitals for free during the Covid-19 crisis. That company has 2,000 spaces listed for health care workers at 150 different hospitals in the country. In 48 hours 250 health care workers took advantage of the free parking.

Just Park is the most used parking app in Britain and allows drivers to reserve a space in advance.  The company is waiving all fees in connection to creating more parking space for health care workers. JustPark went one step further asking people and businesses with available parking spaces  near hospitals to also donate their space to these healthcare workers during the pandemic.

Of course it is British National Health Service policy to charge for parking at hospitals, and there already is some free car parking for staff “through a pre-approved list”.  But in Britain there has been increasing usage of all available hospital parking by staff and by  patient families.

In Sydney Australia Mayor Clover Moore is asking her Council to provide free 24 hour access to parking for all essential workers including those in health care.

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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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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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