Guest blog post by:

Susan Holdsworth RPP MCIP 

City of Edmonton, Community Initiatives, Citizen Services, Social Development

Urban wellness is a subject that many of us are paying more attention to, and if we aren’t already, then we should. Health care costs are enormous, and depression and suicide rates are on the rise. It is exciting to see The Community Wellbeing Framework by the Conference Board of Canada and Dialog.

In September 2017, the City of Edmonton launched an urban wellness project called RECOVER. The first phase focused on the five core neighbourhoods where a lot of social issues such as homelessness are concentrated. It goes without saying that urban wellness is complex and multi-faceted. We knew that there is no one path to wellness. We knew that there are a myriad of ways to achieving it and they are interrelated with too many variables to control. We knew that we had to try something different. We landed on a social innovation approach.

We wanted to explore and test small rapid solutions as a first step to shift systems. Together with communities, businesses and agencies, and other government partners, we developed 13 diverse prototypes for improving urban wellness. One of them was Project Welcome Mat. It was about changing the sidewalk space in front of one of our downtown agencies, Boyle Street Community Services, which serves many people living on the margins. It is one of the busiest sidewalk spaces in the city, but one that most people found to be intimidating.

IMG-1561(The space before Project Welcome Mat)

People going to work or to events, would usually cross the street to avoid interacting with community members of the agency. The businesses in the area suffered from the stigma of their neighbour, and the sidewalk space wasn’t working well for the clients either. It was lots of concrete and not much else. Nowhere to sit – only a single bench big enough for 3 people.

We asked ourselves.. “What if we change the sidewalk space?.. Would it improve relationships within and beyond Boyle Street Community Services? Would we improve urban wellness?”

We started by asking Boyle Street members how they use the space and what they would like to see there. We heard about the need for seating, for art, for ashtrays. We heard that it was too hot in the sun and that they could use awnings or umbrellas. We were told that we had forgotten about Mother Earth and needed to add some greenery. We heard that they wanted it to be a sort of an outdoor social space.

We bought some paint. We borrowed picnic tables, umbrellas and plastic adirondack chairs. We borrowed planters and arranged to have some soil and plants donated. We arranged for an ashtray to be installed. We also borrowed some giant lego (no one asked for this, but we wanted provide some malleable things that folks could turn into whatever else they wanted or were inspired to make). We also borrowed big wooden boxes that said Sit, Relax and Chill, and could be used as tables or seating. We hired the Boyle Street Movers, a social enterprise of Boyle Street Community Services, to bring most of the borrowed items to the sidewalk on April 30, 2018, the day of the prototype launch.

IMG_0618

(During Installation)

That morning, Boyle Street staff brought out the paint. Boyle Street community members and staff decided to paint 4 giant medicine wheels on the sidewalk. Everyone helped. People could see the medicine wheels taking shape from the nearby high-rise offices. There was a buzz generated. In the afternoon, when the borrowed items started appearing, community members were invited to help arrange them. One woman charged up to me to ask me if the chairs were for them to sit in and told me assertively, “‘Cause we’re not animals, you know!”

The change was transformational. Not just physically but emotionally. There was laughter and joy on the sidewalk. Children were running around the medicine wheels. People were building various things out of the lego. Community members and staff were sitting together, chatting. It looked more like the kind of sidewalk where you would buy a fancy $6 coffee and linger.

IMG_0674

When asked to share what they observed, a client of Boyle Street said: “I’ve been here nine years and dreaming of something like this. It is wonderful to see.” Another client shared:  “The Boyle Street has a lot of good resources. People don’t know about it because of the environment. This will change that.”

Boyle Street staff remarked that: “Community members that are usually difficult to work with, prone to violence and misbehaviour, were actively engaged.” Another staffer shared, “I wasn’t sure how it was going to be in the beginning. I am so proud of our community because they took it over, contributed, jumped right in. It’s a whole different energy. They owned it. They’ve made it their home, looking after it.”

Having a new social space outside took the pressure off the indoor social space. Also, staff started holding some of their meetings outside. A worker riding by on his way to work, jumped off his bike to pray in each of the medicine wheels. Nearby office workers started to walk through and interact with community members.

We kept all the elements in place for 3 full days and then scaled back a bit. Many elements stayed out for a full month. The picnic tables are still there. From this quick test, we learned about the importance of co-designing the space with the people. We learned about how much dignity the seating provided, and how meaningful the painted medicine wheels were to the sense of pride. We learned about the importance of child-friendly features. When children were present, antisocial behaviour was discouraged by community members. “You can’t smoke crack!.. There’s children here!!” The gang that usually visits the space, did not come by at all as they also respect the sacredness of children.

We are now working on making the Project Welcome Mat prototype a full-on pilot project. Permanent paint, here we come! Other social agencies have copied elements and now have picnic tables and planters on their sidewalk spaces.

We know that places to sit are important. They are basic infrastructure for placemaking, for healthy public life. I was personally impacted by seeing the difference it made .. (along with all the other elements). I look forward to working on other prototypes and seeing how else we can improve urban wellness through placemaking. We know that our built environments are mirrors and moulders of human behaviour. Let’s work together to generate more pride of place for us all.

The prototype team included Boyle Street Community Services staff (Elliott Tanti) and community members (Helen Herbert and Whitford Skani), City staff (Dorian Smith, Robert Lipka, Jeff Chase), Shafraaz Kaba with Manasc Isaac Architects, Ian O’Donnell with the Downtown Business Association, and Ben Weinlick who was the prototyping coach. Sue Holdsworth was the City connector and a member of the core team for RECOVER.

To find out more about RECOVER:Edmonton’s Urban Wellness Plan, check out www.edmonton.ca/urbanwellness

On Twitter? Learn more about this project and others by following @CityofEdmonton @BoyleStreet #yegurbanwellness

If you are interested in writing a guest blog post for CanU please e-mail your pitch to info@canu.ca

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