Idea beautiful The Forks gets it right with bold, people-first decision to create welcoming, relaxed, licensed Common patio

It is a hot day in Winnipeg, and at the confluence of the two rivers, the afternoon stretches out its long, lazy hours.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/06/2019 (1146 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It is a hot day in Winnipeg, and at the confluence of the two rivers, the afternoon stretches out its long, lazy hours.

Under the dappled shade of the trees, a neatly dressed man sips a pint of beer and works on his tablet, while his small green parrot keeps quiet company on the edge of his table. Other visitors chatting nearby do a double take when they notice the bird and smile, then turn back to their conversations.

The patio is alive with the gentle murmur of life. A few steps away, a middle-aged couple sit in Adirondack chairs, facing the river, each absorbed in their own book. At a long wooden table, a mother and her adult son settle down with a beer, catching up, while a few men in button-up shirts hold a casual business meeting nearby.

This is humanity, in cross-section. There are couples on dates nursing glasses of white wine. Groups of young friends roll up and hop off their bikes. Some tables host one person, focused on a laptop or gazing unfocused at the flow of the river; at others there appear to be whole families, including the dog.

The bartenders at the outdoor kiosk smile as they pour drinks, working through a steady beat of customers who wander up in twos and threes. Nothing is rushed right now. Everything seems perfect. Summer has come to a province filled with people who, each year, want nothing more than to savour the reprieve from winter.

They’ve come to what could be the best place in Winnipeg to do it, and that deserves more discussion.

The Common patio, and the site at large, is easy to enjoy, with few barriers. (Sasha Sefter / Winnipeg Free Press files)

It’s been just over a month since the Common patio at The Forks opened, transforming virtually the entire outdoor space between the market, Johnston Terminal and the river into a licensed space. There may be nowhere else in Canada quite like it; in a place with such persnickety alcohol laws as Manitoba, it still feels a little surreal.

It’s clear the initiative is a success. On three recent visits, both in afternoon and evening, the patio was bustling; crowded but not frantic, brimming with energy. A friend, visiting on a sunny weekday night, texted me to say he was at The Forks, “along with 90 per cent of the rest of the city.”

In those scenarios, it is tempting to say that “every seat was taken,” but at The Common, that’s never quite true: the gentle grassy slopes are always available, too. That’s part of what makes the space work: even when it is busy, it extends an easy welcome. Lounge on the grass with a glass of wine. Bring your own picnic.

These are simple and vivid pleasures. It costs relatively little to make them. The magic of the new patio isn’t the wine and beer, but the company enjoyed with them, even if it’s only one’s own meandering thoughts. Yet what underlies the space that enables those pleasures deserves a moment of reflection.

Nothing is rushed right now. Everything seems perfect. Summer has come to a province filled with people who, each year, want nothing more than to savour the reprieve from winter

The Forks began its life with a wealth of advantages: it had a remarkable natural site, a handful of handsome old buildings, a historical resonance as a meeting place that provided a ready-made concept that would typically cost many thousands of dollars in consulting fees to build and sell to the public.

Still, it might easily have squandered those benefits, allowed them to languish, and indeed, there were years where the site seemed, to put it politely, a bit tired. The potential was always there, but the people running The Forks needed to make the right choices to raise it up from a seed; they deserve credit for making them.

The Forks’ renewal, over the past five to 10 years, has been nothing short of magnificent. Bit by bit, site management identified areas where it could be improved and improved them. It welcomed innovative ideas from the outside, and some of them — such as the annual RAW:almond winter pop-up — are now among its most iconic draws.

Above all, The Forks achieved that rare balance similar sites in cities across the world struggle to get right. Tourists come to The Forks in droves. But so do people who live here, and as a result, the place feels like home. It is not just “in” Winnipeg, but “of” Winnipeg, and that distinction is what makes it so successful.

The Common at The Forks is easy to enjoy; little is required from visitors except that they enjoy the space responsibly. (Sasha Sefter / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Which is to say that in its renewal, The Forks has done nearly everything right. Winnipeg should pay attention.

This is a difficult city to be an urbanist, to care about the development of livable public space. Winnipeg lacks the density to make such conversations unavoidable. It has also, frankly, too often lacked the leadership to drive vision and the result is often a deep cynicism that such change is even possible here.

All the while, there is a tug of war in public discussion, sometimes fractious, over how to build a city we all want to live in. What makes an urban space successful? What does it need to flourish? How can you take a city block, or square of land, and make it into a place that will draw Winnipeggers?

In truth, as The Forks example shows, the alchemy is simple. If you turn a space into an invitation, people will appear. If you make it comfortable, they will stay and make it their own. The magic comes not necessarily from what a space does, but from how it rolls out the welcome mat and then gets out of the way.

If you turn a space into an invitation, people will appear. If you make it comfortable, they will stay and make it their own. The magic comes not necessarily from what a space does, but from how it rolls out the welcome mat and then gets out of the way

The Forks seems to understand that completely. The Common patio, and the site at large, is easy to enjoy, with few barriers. It requires little from its visitors other than that they enjoy it responsibly. There’s no formality to the site, no purchase is necessary. It provides the place and the amenities and lets visitors create its atmosphere.

No doubt the success of this transformation owes to inspired ideas. Whoever first came up with the Common patio is both bold enough to envision a licensed space previously unknown in Manitoba, and, really, sort of a genius. But this isn’t rocket science; it is just allowing the space to breathe easy.

The model is not exactly replicable elsewhere in Winnipeg. It is enabled by The Forks’ unique ownership structure and its control of the site. But with the success of the Common patio as its latest crowning achievement, it offers a lesson in how to shape its most precious public spaces — with an eye to what is, quite simply, good for people.

Something to think about, next time you’re down for a pint, or just to watch the river and the world slide by.

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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