May 20, 2020

Alone, together: the role of riverwalks during social distancing

Public Space and Land Art

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In August of 2011, I arrived in New York City brimming with excitement and wide-eyed wonderment.

I rented a penthouse apartment above a Starbucks on Broadway—yes, the Broadway—and was eager to experience the fast-paced city, which seemed to buzz with a constant hum of energy. Except, that wasn't the experience I had. Instead, I got something much stranger, and truly unforgettable.

The day after I arrived in New York, city officials instructed residents to stay indoors and keep away from all windows. We were on lockdown, bracing ourselves for an imminent threat: Hurricane Irene.

Suddenly, this epicentre of energy was at a standstill. The streets were empty and eerily quiet. Despite warnings, I couldn't help but peek out the window. Even though the storm wasn't due to hit for several hours, it seemed like another cloudy day. And so, being the defiant 19-year-old that I was, I ventured out for a walk around Manhattan.

I frequently think back to the strange paradox that was an empty New York: public space without the public. It was peaceful yet jarring. Despite the calm atmosphere and the fact that I saw a side of New York that most people would never get to see, the stillness left me feeling uneasy.

That night, the storm passed, and the damage was minimal compared to what was anticipated. Relief washed over the city, and life came back to the streets of New York, returning back to that dizzyingly high vibration.

Fast forward to today, and that familiar, eerie feeling seems to be universally understood as we all experience the impact of COVID-19 and the need to social distance.

My internship with Nadi Design has prompted me to reflect on the role of public space, especially now, as public spaces have never felt emptier. Suddenly, it feels shocking to see these areas populated with crowds.

 

However, throughout this transition, as we continue adapting to COVID-19 restrictions, I realized that there is one public space that has become much busier. Well, technically four spaces.

Winnipeg has four primary walking paths located along major riverbanks in the city: Lyndale Drive, Scotia Street, Wellington Crescent, and Wolseley Avenue. Traffic is limited down these routes every day from 8:00 am to 8:00 pm, allowing pedestrians to occupy the space. Before social distancing, the city applied these restrictions only on Sundays and holidays, but now, they are the new norm.

 

Social Distancing Winnipeg's riverwalks Sarah Jane Martin

I grew up around the corner from Lyndale Drive and have since moved into my own house a few minutes away. For years, daily walks along the winding path near the Red River, surrounded by tall grasses and wildflowers, offer me a chance to clear my head and break up the monotony of sitting in my home office.

At 2:00 pm, the sun is high and hits me right as I turn the corner and approach the river walk, and I can almost instantly feel that burst of serotonin brightening my spirits.

I've grown accustomed to being one of the only lone walkers—most folks are out there with their dogs, or rollerblading with their kids. But now, the closed road and the vast expanse of green space flanking either side is populated with other lone walkers like me: masks on and keeping their safe distance. We're also all in it for the same reason—sunshine, fresh air and a much-needed dose of nature to keep us feeling alive and human.

The necessity of these spaces has become so apparent, and the uneasy feeling leaves me when I see everyone alone, together.

It isn’t just people populating the streets either—now, almost every day I see deer walking along the river, sometimes in packs of seven or eight. Growing up here, I had only seen deer pop up on one or two occasions. It certainly isn’t a common sighting in this centrally located neighbourhood.

Recent developments along Lyndale include pairs of wooden benches along the river, spaced far enough apart for people to sit across from each other while still maintaining safe social distance. I meet friends here to catch up, and for a brief moment, it feels like 2019 again. While the current standards regarding six-foot distancing couldn't have been anticipated by the riverwalk’s designers, it's interesting to see how this space is still functional, because of the ample space.

 

Social Distancing Lyndale Drive Benches

I wonder how these restrictions are going to influence future urban planning and design projects. I remember as a teenager believing that the best concerts were the ones in dank, dark bar basements, with hundreds of sweat-drenched punks crammed together, shoulder-to-shoulder. The intimacy, proximity and concentrated energy felt so enlivening, but now, not so much.

Will people start to view distance as a permanent necessity?

Public spaces are essential to thriving, healthy communities, because by nature, we are social creatures. As author John Donne says, “No man is an island.” In other words, we aren’t meant to be solitary creatures—it just isn’t healthy. People everywhere are seeking creative ways to maintain social connectedness while still prioritizing public health by practicing social distancing. It’s a delicate balancing act that a lot of us are still trying to figure out, but future urban planning projects could make it easier for us.

We're forced to re-examine how we inhabit public spaces, and designers and planners are recalibrating accordingly. Though these times are uncertain, urban planners have the power to create positive change through strategic design, and their expertise will be needed now more than ever.

Nadi Design's goal is to leave spaces better than they were as they found them. This is the mindset that is going to help our world become more resilient in the face of a crisis, whether it's climate change, a global pandemic, or whatever else Mother Nature throws our way.

I hope the city continues to make riverwalk paths a priority, even after COVID-19 has passed. Keeping cars off of Lyndale Drive has provided an outdoor community space where people, and local wildlife, feel safe. Norwood is an easy neighbourhood to navigate; rerouting your vehicle when Lyndale is closed requires little effort.

What would happen if the city continued to develop more pedestrian-friendly green spaces and placed similar traffic restrictions on walkable streets, even just for a few hours each day over lunch? The results have been positive so far, and I think we should keep it up post-pandemic.

I’m eager to see how future urban planning strategies could help make social distancing more easily manageable, and I anticipate the day when the energy of my city returns back to where it once was, just like it did in New York in 2011. And when it does, community gatherings will resonate much more deeply. As life trickles back into public spaces, I know I'll be feeling that familiar sense of wide-eyed wonderment once again—plus, heaps of gratitude for the planners that made these spaces welcoming and safe.