When crossing a bridge that spans a river, the view of the ground below your feet pales in comparison to the burbling water, the dancing clouds and the swaying trees that line the banks. Why would anyone look down when looking around is an option?
An urban art experiment in Winnipeg makes a compelling argument for doing both.
Now in its fourth year, Cool Streets Winnipeg’s pedestrian bridge project deploys some of the city’s brightest graphic artists to enliven the grey that connects one side of a river to the other, making the bridges themselves sites worth seeing, drawing people from all walks of life to stop and stare.
This week, bridges that span the Seine River were transformed into walkable murals: Alex Plante channelled oranges, limes and grapefruits to create "Citrus Splash." Kailey Sheppard used muted blues and greens, with floating seals, to give crossers the sensation they were "Walking on Water." Architectural collective Architects at Play tapped into childhood wonder to devise "Play City," a mesmerizing hopscotch dreamscape that reminds pedestrians what it’s like to believe the floor is made of lava.
On Thursday morning, artists Pat Lazo and Kal Barteski plotted out murals of their own spanning Bunn’s Creek, while Cool Streets organizer Stéphane Dorge dipped his paint roller to bring to life a design by artist Nereo Zorro, who wasn’t in Winnipeg as planned, owing to the pandemic.
These pedestrian bridges are now anything but pedestrian.
For Dorge, the bridge project has been an expression of a long-festering passion for urban exploration, a way to inspire people in Winnipeg to seek out new pathways and take advantage of pedestrian bridges — gems he wishes weren’t so hidden.
The Cool Streets Project started ahead of the Canada Summer Games in 2017 with funding from the Centre culturel franco-manitobain, who gave Dorge carte blanche to paint crosswalks in bleu, jaune et rouge. The next year, the project expanded to include pedestrian bridges, with funding coming from the city’s Riel committee, which continues to support the program, and private sponsors.
This year, the East-Kildonan Transcona committee contributed funding for the Bunn’s Creek murals, as did the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority.
Before starting the project, Dorge, who works for the city’s inspections branch, advocated for the implementation of bike lanes along Provencher Boulevard. Seeing how long and arduous a process like that could be, he says he wanted to focus on something attainable that could also promote active transportation.
That idea of active transportation has taken on added value during the pandemic, with gyms and organized sports closed, extra-provincial tourism significantly limited, and the mental health benefits of being outdoors more crucial than ever before. "There’s been a noticeable increase in people biking, walking and exploring," he says. "It’s night and day."
Though it didn’t happen how he’d hoped, more people seem to be exploring pedestrian bridges, which has Dorge thinking the city needs more of them.
While record investments continue to be made in vehicular infrastructure, with significant increases in bike and pedestrian infrastructure, including the city funding for Cool Streets, Dorge says the pandemic has highlighted the fact that more still needs to be done to address the obvious desire Winnipeggers have to walk, bike, and roll instead of drive.
"One of the keystones missing is more pedestrian bridges," he says. "If we added a dozen more pedestrian bridges across the Red, we would change transportation habits. If we can make destinations (reachable by) one or two kilometres of biking or walking instead of five to six kilometres of driving, a lot more people will choose to take those bridges. That alleviates congestion on our streets and creates healthier communities by getting more people active."
It makes sense not just from a health perspective, but from a financial one, he says. In the long run, investing in pedestrian infrastructure will lead to huge savings in city and provincial capital that normally would be earmarked for road repair and upgrades, he said.
The benefits are all there, he says. And it’s been clear from the few days of painting that the public is appreciative of the public art, giving them a reason to look up, down, and around.
"All day, people have been coming by and saying the same thing to us," Dorge said Wednesday. "Thank you."
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.