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Calgary design ideas help physical distance in high density areas during coronavirus

Higher density Calgary areas with few open park spaces are seeing crowding on sidewalks as people are trying to find a way to grab some fresh air during coronavirus isolation.

That’s spurred a touch of innovation from Calgary company O2 Planning + Design. They put out a series of designs showing how certain Calgary corridors could be temporarily redesigned to accommodate more foot traffic at a time when physical distancing is critical to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Chris Hardwicke, Principal, Urban Design with O2, said their team brainstormed ideas to tackle the challenge of working from home and how we could better use the public space.

“The traffic has dropped dramatically worldwide, and often pedestrians are fighting for wider sidewalks anyways,” said Hardwicke.

“This is one of the few situations where we can actually prototype these things and try them out while the cars are in everyone’s driveways.”

He said we know that walking is a healthy way to get exercise, build the immune system and having the social connection.

“Even if we’re keeping our distance. It’s important to stay healthy and keep optimistic and still get your groceries,” said Hardwicke.

The O2 designs

In a nutshell, the designs generated by the team at O2 involve closing down generally un-used lanes of Calgary traffic in certain corridors and opening them up to pedestrians.

They identified five corridors that have higher density and connect several daily amenities like pharmacies and grocery stores.

“It’s a great way to test it out without slowing down any commuters and see which spaces work and which routes are the best routes,” Hardwicke said.

“It’s important to think about how we get our essential supplies. Even where the grocery stores are, the distribution centres, the walkable neighbourhoods. People are talking about food deserts. Often in cities, in times of crisis like this, it’s really important we have access to food.”

Other designs involve turning some intersections with traffic signals into four-way stops. This would prevent the congregation of people at corners where the physical distancing may be tough.

“It just means that you’re not sitting there waiting for a red light when there’s no cars around,” Hardwicke said.

Exercise, fresh air = better mental and physical health

In her daily briefings, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw often remarks about the importance of getting out for a walk in the fresh air, and the impact it has on mental and physical health.

“I do encourage people to go for walks and enjoy being outside, and at the same time, it is extremely important to maintain that distance between others,” she said in her March 23 briefing.

Coun. Druh Farrell said some of the higher density spots are attractive places to congregate, but they don’t provide the space for social distancing.

“We’re encouraging people to get a little bit of exercise, but it’s absolutely required to keep the two meters distance. And so that’s hard to do when, when the public realm is busy,” she said.

Farrell said with traffic down and transit ridership plummeting and warmer weather in the forecast, more people will be out with bikes and on foot.

Opportunity, maybe. Necessity, yes

Farrell said the city is in crisis mode right now. And while it may seem like an opportune time to roll out solutions like the ones proposed by O2, this may be a temporary solution that’s necessary to implement.

“Crises often bring out creative solutions that we can learn from and embed the lessons in everyday business,” said Farrell, referring to innovations that rose up during the 2013 flooding.

“This crisis will be no different. We will experiment, we will respond, we will make mistakes, then correct and look at ways to embed those improvements into how we do business when things recover.”

Hardwick said they haven’t been approached by the city. But they’re open to contact. Hardwicke agreed with Farrell – these are times you get to test ideas and use the knowledge for future planning.

“It’s important to have them done ahead of time and prioritize that way,” he said.

“You need to anticipate that as long as you’re encouraging more people to live downtown… It’s time to really think about how we use our sidewalks and at least prioritize some streets for pedestrians and make them designed that way, so in the future they’re ready for any possibility.