“We have the potential to create an inclusive future. Our future lies in understanding the needs of people” – UNESCO
I want to begin by acknowledging that I am fortunate to live in a very privileged neighbourhood where most residents are within walking distance of transit, groceries, local produce, trails, bike routes, recreational facilities, schools, doctor’s offices and other necessities.
The pandemic allowed me to view my neighbourhood from a spatial justice lens. An article on Quarantine Urbanism puts it into perspective by saying that the pandemic can be a luxury and time to reclaim personal time for some, while for others in less privileged neighbourhoods, it is a place of isolation and inequity. Having this understanding gave me an appreciation for where I live and what I have access to.
“I think (the pandemic) has shown how dependent you are on your immediate neighbourhood. Can I buy what I need with a very short trip? Can I get to services I need, or amenities like playgrounds and still stay within my neighbourhood? I think that will have a lasting impact.” – Jason Thorne, general manager of planning and economic development at the City of Hamilton
I want to surround this post around the concept of “third place” and its importance in fostering a sustainable and inclusive community on Capitol Hill throughout the pandemic and looking forward. Third places can be defined as spaces outside of home (first place) and work (second place). They are public gathering spaces that contribute to the strength of a community. While Capitol Hill has these spaces in the form of trails and green spaces, more effort can be made to make them more sustainable and inclusive for everyone in the community.
Below is a map of Capitol Hill and its features that I created on Google Maps. It is followed by a rough sketch I drew that shows what is already present and what additions I believe are necessary to create a more sustainable and inclusive community. These additions stem from observations I made on the needs of my community during the lock down in April. While there are many things that could be addressed within my community, I chose to focus on slow streets and community gardens.
Reflection on Capitol Hill During the Pandemic
“The biggest change since the pandemic began has come in the use of public spaces in city neighbourhoods” – Jason Thorne
While Capitol Hill did not see any direct changes in response to the pandemic, the way the community interacted with the space changed. Along the back side of the hill, there is a trail through the forest which became a sanctuary for residents to get out of their houses and take a walk. People thrived off routines at this time and I would find myself running into the same families every morning at 9 am when I would go for a run. It provided a place to meet neighbours, a place to connect; a third place.
Another greenspace that fostered connection was the famous “viewpoint”, which is located on the west side of the hill. It offers views the North Shore, Vancouver and Vancouver Island. It became a meeting spot for neighbours to get out of the house in the evenings to watch sunsets and connect from a distance.
When I reflect on my experience throughout the pandemic, the desire for a “third place” that fosters community connection is what continues to come to mind. While Capitol Hill does have spaces to connect, there is a need for more inclusive and accessible spaces. Some gaps I have noted include:
- The lack of sidewalks
- The lack of spaces for child play
- The lack of community spaces for elderly individuals
Capitol Hill is characterized by its steep and narrow streets that rewards its residents with a beautiful view at the top. This has led to the majority of the houses being built wide and tall to get the most out of their view. Unfortunately, this is at the expense of the size of the yard which ultimately impacts children and their access to play. This became evident to me when I saw my neighbour build a small pool in his front hard so his children would have a safe space to play during the pandemic. Because the yard was so small to begin with, the pool took up the entire front yard, right up to the fence.
Another observation I made through the pandemic was elderly individuals struggling through the rough terrain of the trails. They too were seeking a space to connect and experience the outdoors which was evident through their big smiles and eagerness to stop and chat when I would run by them. However, it was evident that the steep and uneven hills posed a challenge for them.
Sustainable Development Goal 11
In an online meeting report called Urban Solutions: Learning from Cities’ Responses to COVID-19, UNESCO highlights that the work done to create a more resilient and inclusive future must be guided by the Sustainable Development Goal 11 ‘Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’. Swansea, a UNESCO Learning City in the UK, has rethought its use of public spaces and has worked towards becoming more inclusive and innovative in their neighbourhoods. This has been done by repurposing public spaces to focus on social interaction and green spaces. And, with the presence of the pandemic, these measures have proven to serve as valid avenues to explore and test out further elsewhere. A main emphasis for Swansea was placing people at the center of their endeavors. Swansea’s work serves as evidence that local initiatives to repurpose existing assets and spaces helps foster community connection and inclusion in neighbourhoods.
Other examples from before and during the pandemic that I found include Edmonton’s #DYIcity that involves kickstarting short-term, safe and fun placemaking projects to liven up neighbourhoods and underused spaces. These projects include, painting garages in alleys, community gardens and chalk mandalas. Another is Wintermission, a strategy conceived by 8 80 Cities, a non-profit organization that aims to bring citizens together to enhance mobility and public spaces to create vibrant, healthy and equitable communities. Wintermission was initiated to combat social isolation and increase levels of physical activity in winter for all residents. Emphasis was put on the inclusion of all ages, abilities and socio-economic and ethnocultural backgrounds. Initiatives include creating winter walking paths and community engagement projects in public spaces in neighourhoods.
I believe the gaps I mentioned can be addressed by using systems thinking to incorporate elements from the placemaking examples above and tailoring them to the landscape, characteristics and needs of Capitol Hill. Considering David Orr’s Systems Thinking and the Future of Cities article and Human-Centered Design, we can shift from seeing the gaps and issues as separate parts, to seeing Capitol Hill has a whole interconnected system. We can shift from seeing the children, elderly and residents as helpless actors who cannot access trails and spaces to play and see them as active participants who can contribute to shaping their reality by creating a new inclusive and sustainable future on Capitol Hill.
With the hilly landscape of Capitol Hill in mind, it is not likely more sidewalks can be put in without narrowing the already narrow streets. Instead, slow streets could be created on streets that are relatively flat, as well as near greenspaces and daycare centers where there are likely larger concentrations of children playing. It will close portions of the streets to cars and allow a safe space for children to play outside of their houses and small yards. Some sidewalks and slow streets could also include chalk drawing activities for children and families to liven up the neighbourhood. These slow streets will provide spaces for children to take part in unstructured play outdoors during the pandemic and after. This is important as unstructured and child-led play allows children to interact with their environment in a range of different ways.
Figure 4 shows an example of three street sections that are suitable for slow streets.
In terms of addressing the needs of the elderly, community gardens could be created at the two major greenspaces on the hill. At “viewpoint” in particular, the top of a cement structure is seen as an eye sore in the park. This space could occupy garden beds to liven up the space and help foster community connection for elderly individuals and the rest of the residents on the hill. Community gardens are known for their ability to address social needs and advance community empowerment by encouraging new forms of knowledge and participation from its users. The residents of varying ages and cultures living on the hill could come together and learn from each other and share their knowledge on gardening practices.
“We’ve got to take the assets we’ve got and bring those cultural activities” – Mary Rowe, president and CEO of Canadian Urban Institute
The pandemic has given me a new perspective on neighborhoods and spatial justice. While Capitol Hill is more privileged than other neighbourhoods, there is still much room for improvement to make it more inclusive and sustainable. By taking a systems thinking approach and considering Human-Centered Design, Capitol Hill can get one step closer to being a more sustainable and inclusive community. Focusing on slow streets and community gardens will allow all residents to have access to a “third place” that fosters community connection during the pandemic and beyond.
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