Cultivating Connection: Welcoming and Inclusive Public Spaces

*Disclaimer: I am by no means an expert in community accessibility or urban design. These are simply topics that I find myself thinking about a lot, and well, writing is my method of organizing thoughts and hearing varying opinions.

Growing up, I was a sidewalk rider.

We lived on the corner of a pretty busy street in a Winnipeg suburban neighbourhood. With a regular bus route and easy access to Lagimodiere, this near-constant traffic meant that as a riding on the sidewalk was seemingly the safest method of getting from my house to my grandmas as a young (and clumsy) human. She lived on the other side of the street, which meant safely riding there required hitting countless bumps and going around cars parked conveniently in the middle of the sidewalk.

Until a couple of years ago, I continued to ride my bike on the sidewalk on busy streets, as this was my norm. I loved the freedom of “street rides,” meandering my way through St. Boniface to The Forks, flying down the monkey trails, and gliding over the Seine River in what I thought was the most beautiful part of Winnipeg. To be fair, I still believe that this bike route is one of the most scenic in the city.

As humans, we crave connection. For example, hopping on an always timely train in Germany was my escape to somewhere else; with a 5-euro ticket, I could get 50 kilometers away to a city I’ve never heard of. In a train car filled with muffled conversation, pondering how far this REtrain could get me was my salvation; my first experience with the magic of accessibility and mobility. When provided with accessible systems, human curiosity expands hundred-fold, sparking a new connection with cities, surroundings, and communities.

Accessible Communities Around the World

In many cities, accessible mobility is the norm, and the folks at Disability Horizons do a great job at sharing their findings. Take Barcelona for example, where accessibility is commonplace throughout many necessary facilities in the city for people of all abilities. All buses and the majority of Metro stations are wheelchair accessible. Incredibly, they’ve also designed a city beach that’s ideal for those who have limited mobility, complete with accessible walkways that lead to the water with accessible changing facilities.

As a modern city focused on creating a healthy, sustainable, and lively environment enjoyable for all citizens, Berlin has made accessibility a modern priority. With accessible public transport and the proposed Radbahn that will repurpose the area under a major overground subway line for cyclists, active and reliable transportation is not seen as a hurdle to overcome, but an appreciated part of a successful urban environment.

When I find myself in a place that is bustling with lively energy and people from all walks of life, my curiosities wander to what can we do at home to encourage future-forward policies.

Public space should enable individuals of all capabilities to transport themselves safely and experience Winnipeg in a new light.

Welcoming Public Spaces in Winnipeg

I spend plenty of workdays in the Millennium Library downtown, enchanted by this free public space that is overflowing with a sense of community. As one of the only free public spaces that individuals must access information and educational materials, I question what other types of public spaces we create that serve all members of the public, whether they’re making a purchase or not.

We’re starting to get there as a city, with the success of the Red River Mutual Trail, accessible community gardens placed on unused lots, the recently renovated Forks Market, and the permanently closed Assiniboine Park Conservatory.

Now don’t get me wrong – I’ll chat endlessly about the incredible sense of community and connection to the city that Assiniboine Park provides. They’re cultivating a beautiful gathering space that represents our need to connect to nature and each other equally. However, with the permanent closure of the Conservatory making room for Canada’s Diversity Gardens, it’s hard to call this new development a truly inclusive space, as it’s not necessarily a “free” community area.

The Diversity Gardens are marketed as “an exploration of the human connection with plants and nature will showcase our nation’s extraordinary multicultural heritage. Visitors will discover the role plants have in shaping the life and identity of their community and their country – past, present and future.” Although I’m all for the development of a gathering space that showcases the identity of our multicultural society, the main building of Canada’s Diversity Garden will charge an entrance fee. The specific amount has not been formally announced.

That being said, not many public spaces operate without flaws. I deeply believe in the initiatives that are being taken on by Assiniboine Park, including their natural playground, their Art in the Park initiatives, and the Summer Entertainment Series that takes place annually at the Lyric Theatre.

What Makes a Public Space “Inclusive?”

An inclusive, safe, and accessible gathering space is one that is non-discriminatory (intentionally or unintentionally), can be accessed with ease, and serves the public in a way that helps cultivate community and activity.

In his blog “Inclusive of exclusive spaces?,” Professor Julian Agyeman highlights “the role that design of urban spaces can play in who actually uses them and how they are used.” Referring to Setha Low et al in Rethinking Urban Parks: Public Space and Cultural Diversity, the design of a public space has an effect not just on how people use these spaces, but who feels comfortable and able to truly enjoy the space for what it is. Setha Low et al state that,

“we are facing a different kind of threat to public space — not one of disuse, but of patterns of design and management that exclude some people and reduce social and cultural diversity. In some cases this exclusion is the result of a deliberate program to reduce the number of undesirables, and in others, it is a by product of privatization, commercialization, historic preservation, and specific strategies of design and planning. Nonetheless, these practices can reduce the vitality and vibrance of the space or re-organize it in such a way that only one kind of person — often a tourist or middle-class visitor — feels welcomed.”

Cultivating Accessible and Sustainable Transport to Public Spaces

Part of creating an inclusive public space is generating the ability for all people to access the space with ease throughout the year. For the sake of brevity, I’ll focus on the importance of accessible and sustainable transport to these public spaces in our city.

In my mind, the implementation of accessible transportation extends further than simply a transporter and traveler. Successful accessible transport must meet a wide variety of needs, and starts long before an individual gets to the bus stop or hops on their bike. It starts with clean sidewalks, safe routes, and informed community members. Individuals with mobility issues have had to live with their basic human rights stripped away as soon as the snow hits the ground for far too long.

However, I’ve seen some incredible examples of empowering individuals to educate themselves on transportation safety in Canada, such as teaching bike safety in schools, giving bike lessons to newcomers, and providing community members with access to bike maintenance knowledge.

But to start creating safe spaces for people to move and gather, we need to speak up and demonstrate loud and clear that there is a need for these issues to be resolved in Winnipeg – and yes, that includes filling in potholes, to satisfy a wide array of people. Albeit small, there’s a semblance of activism in riding on the road. It’s normalizing the idea for drivers and bikers alike by sharing a public space and respecting each other’s chosen methods of getting around.

Generating conversation on these topics is a link between the known and unknown. Sustainable and accessible transportation is a concept that we can bring into our everyday lives, and in turn, can change the way our city is shaped, and how we feel about it.

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