No good deed, it seems, goes unpunished.
Winnipeggers Brad Hignell and Chris Beauvilain found that out recently when they used picks and shovels to clear the Omand’s Creek footbridge — a task the city’s public works department had deemed too hazardous to complete, citing thick, treacherous ice that would not allow for machine access to complete the job.
The city was less than thrilled with the men’s efforts, reiterating through a spokesperson that citizens must respect road-closure signage and that such an "unsanctioned clearing" could have led to structural damage to the footbridge (it didn’t). Further, the city had determined the bridge and its approaches were a risk to public safety.
This story generated hundreds of comments. Some felt the footbridge was not considered a priority for snow clearance simply because it’s part of an active transportation system — in other words, just a bike path.
"When you have a city with the bare minimum of connectivity, every little piece counts," Anders Swanson, executive director of Winnipeg Trails Association, told the Free Press after the city said the bridge would be closed until spring.
It’s a fair comment. Imagine if any other road or pathway had been treated like the footbridge in this, a winter city: "Well, there’s snow and ice on it. Better shut ’er down until April."
For many, however, the bridge represents yet another embarrassing instance of citizens feeling compelled to take a civic matter into their own hands because an issue isn’t being dealt with in a satisfactory way — or at all. Clearing a footbridge is not quite on the level of, say, hiring a private investigator out of pocket to make sure city inspectors are actually working, but it’s not hard to find commonality in the exasperated motives that drive such actions.
Citizens do, and should, have civic responsibilities. Part of living in a city involves doing things you don’t particularly want to do, in support of things that might not affect you directly but contribute to the greater good of the community as a whole. That often takes the form of paying taxes, but it can also include the things everyday citizens do, well, every day.
It is a homeowner’s responsibility to clear windrows left by snowplows in back lanes, for example, and to spend summer months maintaining the grass on city-owned boulevards. Many people don’t stop shovelling at the end of their walkways; they help clear the city sidewalks and the pathways of less-able neighbours because that’s part of being a good citizen.
Property owners were expected to remove their own tree debris after the October snowstorm, and many also pitched in with cleanup efforts around their neighbourhoods. Winnipeggers are reliably helpful in a crisis.
While safety and liability issues cannot be discounted, one gets the impression the city’s response to the efforts of the bridge-clearing duo was motivated more by embarrassment than genuine cautionary concern. More simply stated, it was the application of hard work and a "can-do" spirit that put to shame a deeply entrenched "can’t-do" bureaucratic fallback.
Liability concerns aside, citizens who take the initiative to pitch in by shovelling their neighbour’s sidewalk, or keeping the leaves from collecting in the drains so the street doesn’t flood, or flooding a little park to make a skating rink for the kids or, yes, clearing a footbridge people like to use, should be commended, not condemned. And if the city doesn’t like regular folks doing its work for it, well, there’s a pretty obvious solution.
Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.