Opinion

“We heard birds” exclaimed Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, France, in an interview with Time magazine last summer. She was describing her city, all cities, during the first COVID-19 lockdowns, when, with fewer people driving, we were provided a glimpse into what the future of cities could be. She vowed that Paris would not return to a pre-pandemic world, pledging to learn from the devastating challenges of the last year and emerge as a more socially equitable, environmentally sustainable, cleaner, healthier and happier city.

"We heard birds" exclaimed Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, France, in an interview with Time magazine last summer. She was describing her city, all cities, during the first COVID-19 lockdowns, when, with fewer people driving, we were provided a glimpse into what the future of cities could be. She vowed that Paris would not return to a pre-pandemic world, pledging to learn from the devastating challenges of the last year and emerge as a more socially equitable, environmentally sustainable, cleaner, healthier and happier city.

The changes that have swept across Paris since have been far-reaching and impactful, driven by a policy framework called the "la ville du quart d’heure," or the "15-minute city." The strategy focuses on building more diverse, integrated, and mixed-use neighbourhoods that provide residents access to all of life’s core services and amenities, within a 15-minute walk, bike or transit ride. Designing communities with integrated supports such as shops, restaurants, gyms, groceries, offices, schools and parks is in direct contrast to most modern neighbourhoods, where housing is separated by a vehicle trip from employment, shopping, entertainment and industry.

A family wearing protective face masks walk along on the Champs Elysée avenue, with Arc de Triomphe in background, in Paris in August 2020. (Kamil Zihnioglu / The Associated Press files)

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A family wearing protective face masks walk along on the Champs Elysée avenue, with Arc de Triomphe in background, in Paris in August 2020. (Kamil Zihnioglu / The Associated Press files)

The pandemic has forced many people to work from home and spend more time in their own neighbourhoods. The 15-minute city concept builds on this evolving social and employment landscape, offering an opportunity to improve local economies and deliver lasting health, equity and environmental benefits.

In Paris, incentives are being provided to support development of small businesses and community facilities in targeted areas, emphasizing equal access to services, amenities and green space that strengthen neighbourhoods and actively reduce social divides and inequalities. A new policy has been developed to create pockets of "urban forest" and community gardens for local urban agriculture, in school yards, parks, plazas and other public spaces like city-owned surface parking lots.

To facilitate more outdoor dining during the pandemic, restaurants and cafés across Paris were allowed to set up temporary outdoor patios in parking spaces on the street. It was recently announced that these patios will be made a permanent fixture in the city. As the pandemic lifts, other neighbourhood businesses such as florists or bookstores will also be invited to apply for summer terraces, turning over large parts of streets to more pedestrian uses.

People ride on the new bike lanes in Paris in May, 2020. The French capital enlarged bicycles lanes, shown with yellow painting. (Christophe Ena / THe Associated Press files)

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People ride on the new bike lanes in Paris in May, 2020. The French capital enlarged bicycles lanes, shown with yellow painting. (Christophe Ena / THe Associated Press files)

At the centre of the 15-minute city idea is a complete transformation of how people will move around the city. During the pandemic, more than 50 kilometres of new bike lanes, called corona-pistes, were built on major streets across Paris, to provide direct access to key destinations that allows the bicycle to become a viable mode of daily transportation. These lanes are now being made permanent, and the government has committed to building another 650 kilometres of new cycleways, with public space and sidewalks that will transform 70 per cent of the city’s on-street car parking into places for people.

To provide more public space during the pandemic, the city’s iconic east-west artery, Rue de Rivoli, became an open street to allow socially distanced outdoor activity. This major artery has now been made permanently open, complementing the riverside freeway that once served 40,000 vehicles per day that has now been transformed into a pedestrian promenade. More than one billion euros per year has been pledged for the maintenance and beautification of streets, squares and gardens, including the famous Champs-Élysées, which will see half of its eight vehicle lanes removed with new bike lanes, pocket parks, and public space, being created along its length.

As one of the few positive legacies of the pandemic, Winnipeg’s Open Streets are, on a very small scale, reminiscent of what is happening in Paris. We have taken a tiny fraction of Winnipeg’s 7,000 kilometres of street lanes dedicated to vehicles and turned them into large linear parks. You can hear the birds again on Wellington Crescent.

A person in a wheelchair makes their way down Wellington Crescent alongside two cyclists earlier this month. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free press files)

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

A person in a wheelchair makes their way down Wellington Crescent alongside two cyclists earlier this month. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free press files)

As popular as they are, Open Streets face opposition, but closing them doesn’t necessarily mean a return to the past. Paris offers us an important alternative to consider. The goal of its mobility strategies in the 15-minute city has been to connect pedestrians and cyclists safely and conveniently with their day-to-day destinations, by pedestrianizing major streets and building protected bike lanes on direct, heavy traffic, central routes.

Wellington Crescent doesn’t have to be an Open Street, but its future can be something more than the high-speed vehicle freeway it once was. It could be reimagined with parking space removed to build bike lanes and sidewalks. Stop signs and raised crosswalks could be added at every intersection to reduce and slow traffic. It could become a vital active transportation connector between Polo Park and Osborne Village, and a slow, safe, park-like street to drive on.

WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>A cyclist pedals along a section of Wellington Crescent that, as part of Winnipeg’s active transportation pilot project, has raised complaints from homeowners.</p>

WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

A cyclist pedals along a section of Wellington Crescent that, as part of Winnipeg’s active transportation pilot project, has raised complaints from homeowners.

Similarly, instead of opening Scotia Street, adding wider sidewalks and protected bike lanes on a major route like Salter Street would provide equitable access to education, employment and recreation for North End residents. Every neighbourhood has main streets with similar opportunities to connect people with the places they want to go, using more diverse, affordable and sustainable modes of transportation.

Paris has shown through its 15-minute-city strategy that by focusing on building stronger, more connected neighbourhoods that allow biking, walking and transit to be used as everyday transportation, great change can be realized. It is OK if Open Streets are not Winnipeg’s priority, if new, more impactful ideas replace them.

It is impossible to compare any Canadian city to a global capital like Paris, but its desire to use the lessons of the last year to emerge from the pandemic with a new vision of what the future can be, is something that should inspire all cities.

Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.

Brent Bellamy

Brent Bellamy
Columnist

Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.

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