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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Photographer Ken Ohrn captures Sylvia Ohrn walking in local blossom splendour.

I have previously written about Cherry Blossom Madness  and the one street on the east side of Vancouver that explodes with a canopy of cherry blossoms, and tourists who are themselves the main event. Residents of the street have even had to enlist the City of Vancouver to keep the calm while car drivers jockey to visit the blooms.

There are over 43,000 cherry trees in Vancouver with fifty different varieties. You can take a look at this interactive map by the Vancouver Sun that shows the location of 16,000 cherry trees.

Normally there is a cherry blossom festival in Vancouver and you can take a look at the history of cherry trees here on their website. While many of the events for the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival are cancelled, there are still some online events which you can look at here.

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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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Daphne Bramham in the Vancouver Sun and Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times work through what we are all thinking about~what is this new normal? And for how long will this last? As Daphne directly states:

“There’s only one certainty, the experts tells us each day. If you don’t come into contact with the virus, you won’t get it and you won’t pass it on.”

This was the same strategy that was adopted in New York City during the 1918 Flu Epidemic to limit transmission of that virus. In that case, the bacillus that caused the infection was absent from the cultures taken. Like today there was no antidote to stop the flu. It was places like New York City  that instituted  a “robust” and organized public health infrastructure, distanced the healthy from the infected,  and maintained public health campaign and  disease surveillance that had lower mortality rates.

The self isolation that was so successful in 1918 can today stop the virus from exponentially spreading.  Today most people are experiencing the new “oneness” with themselves or  with immediate family members.  That does not mean you can’t walk or cycle, just not in proximity to other people. Simon Fraser University gerontologist and planner Andrea Sara has created the hashtag #GoForAWalk to remind people to get out of their living quarters.

Michael Kimmelman observes that traditionally we “seek solace in religion, sports, entertainment and in the promise that modern science and societies provide all the tools needed to solve any problem.”

It is unusual that we look to changing our own behaviour and use of space to be part of the solution. But that is what is being asked of us as schools, services, shops and the accoutrements of daily life shutter like the page of a science fiction novel.

It also takes a direct hit on how we use outdoor space, and also shows how public space is basically designed for groups of people to congregate in, not for individuals. It is  a telling thing that images of great well loved public spaces that are internationally recognized are shown to be empty. They were never designed for solitary solace, for a person or two to tuck in a corner here and there. Instead they were drawn up in the grand manner accommodating groups of people together, making the solitary oneness required by this pandemic  uncomfortable and awkward, like a solitary tulip bulb planted in a barren garden.

While there is sure to be a discussion about the antiurban and antisocial characteristics of the pandemic in changing normally social discourse and use of space, there is also something else very evident~we don’t design public space to embrace our temporary oneness.

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There’s nothing more Canadian than a Canada Goose, perhaps with the exception of a Zamboni. The Zamboni is a rideable machine that shaves the top of rink ice surfaces, and actually washes and wipes down the ice. It was developed in California in 1947, but is synonymous with indoor skating and hockey rinks everywhere in Canada.

We of course also have the best day of the month of February when the Toronto Maple Leaf’s Zamboni driver was pressed into goalie action as an emergency fill in for the Carolina Hurricanes and halted eight shots on the net, becoming the first emergency goalie-and Zamboni driver~in National Hockey League history to be credited with a win.

Which brings us to Mike Hicks who is the  director of the Juan de Fuca Electoral Area on Vancouver Island.

As anyone playing sports on grass knows, Canada Geese seem to like the same dry level places that many sports are played on, leaving ubiquitous pebbled bird feces  everywhere. Mr. Hicks responded with what he calls a “poop zamboni”, a machine originally developed in New Zealand where it scours fields scooping up horse manure. As CBC’s Sheena Goodyear reports, with typical Canadian ingenuity, Mr. Hicks bought the machine as “recreational equipment” and was able to use the Federal Gas Tax Credit given to municipalities for infrastructure and recreation expenditures.

With two kids in field sports, Mr. Hicks knew that the two soccer fields in his town of Sooke were covered in Canada Goose poop constantly. He thinks each goose eliminates 1.4 kilograms or 3 pounds of poop daily.

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When Prime Minister Harper visited the Arctic on one of his several trips – once for 16 days – the words “climate change” never passed his lips.  In the Arctic – where the manifestations of climate change are more evident and fast-changing than most places on the planet.

That was a very deliberate strategy: ‘Never deny climate change, just don’t recognize it as a priority.  Sign on to policies and protocols so long as the deadlines are decades hence.  And send a message: Government will not do anything disruptive, particularly with respect to the economy, especially the resource industries, like carbon taxes or game-changing regulations.’

That message was targeted to other leaders and decision-makers, public and private, as well as his own base.  In short: ‘I don’t believe climate change is a priority worthy of immediate or drastic action.  So you don’t have to either.’

The strategy assumes two conditions: (1) The public believes you’re doing enough to take climate change seriously (but not crazily).  That you are still taking care of us.  And (2) Nature does nothing too disruptive.

It worked for Harper.  Unfortunately, it’s not working for the Prime Minister of Australia and his coalition party.

Nature did not hold up its end of the bargain.  And so the public isn’t either.


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