Manitobans are being encouraged to stay active and get outdoors this pandemic winter — but advocates say that means sidewalk and active transportation route clearing has to keep up.
“If people felt trapped before, they’re really going to feel trapped now,” said Anders Swanson, executive director of the Winnipeg Trails Association.
The organization is working with multiple city councillors and community groups to try to make more opportunities for skiing, snowshoeing, biking and walking this winter.
On top of those efforts, the city should be doubling down on sidewalk clearing, with extra attention to areas around schools, grocery stores and seniors’ homes, Swanson said.
“Right now, trails and getting outside is really the only recreational opportunity that is available. I think it’s taken on an importance that even we couldn’t have conjured before this,” he said.
“People are going to need to get outside. More than ever, we need to look at … the ways we maintain our existing pathway networks to make sure that everybody has access.”
David Kron, executive director of the Cerebral Palsy Association of Manitoba and a spokesperson for Barrier-Free Manitoba, said poorly maintained sidewalks affect everybody.
“It’s not just for folks who are in the disability community. It’s for all Winnipeggers and all Manitobans,” he said. “It’s a safety issue. It’s an access issue. It’s [an] equality issue.”
Everyone can appreciate getting outdoors and getting some exercise, especially during the pandemic, Kron said.
“It’s great to get out and get some fresh air, and it’s something you can do safely together, but separately,” he said. “It’s just what everybody needs.”
‘Fear of falling’
Aida Champagne, board member and consultant for the Filipino Seniors Group of Winnipeg, said the people she works with are lonely right now and facing limited options for how to get out of the house.
Sidewalks can be treacherous even with very little snow, and popular options for indoor activities, like mall walking, are closed.
“It’s too lonely to be cooped inside a house, especially for some seniors without any relatives, or living alone in their apartments or a nursing home,” she said.
Connie Newman, executive director of the Manitoba Association of Senior Centres, said the seniors she works with — and she herself — are also apprehensive about getting outdoors in the winter.
“For many of us and many of our centres, the ability to get outside and enjoy relatively OK fresh air right now is very, very important for own mental health and our physical health,” she said.
“I love to walk in my neighbourhood, and yet with our icy conditions, it makes it almost impossible because of fear of falling.”
‘A bleak winter if we don’t’
No matter your reason for getting outside, Swanson said it can have a major impact on mental health.
The Winnipeg Trails Association has some projects in the works that he hopes to share more information on soon, but everyone can play a role in helping make the outdoors accessible, he said.
“What we’re looking at doing is bringing enhanced winter trail activities to every area of the city, because, quite frankly … it’s going to be a bleak winter if we don’t,” he said.
“I think that there’s a role for everybody to play, to be honest.”
Champagne and Newman echoed that sentiment.
If you’re a business owner or a homeowner, ensuring the sidewalks in front of your property are cleared can be a huge help, they said.
“The more the individual person can do on our side streets, on our cul-de-sacs, to make sure the front sidewalks are cleared — that would be a great support,” Newman said.
“From a city point of view, our main sidewalks should be cleared. And if they can’t be cleared, there should be sand on them so that we can all walk.”
Kron added that one perk of the pandemic has been the increased ease of working from home, which has helped some in the disability community who had faced challenges in their commutes. He hopes to see that change last longer than COVID-19.
Michael Cantor, manager of maintenance for Winnipeg’s public works department, said the city isn’t planning on doing anything differently regarding sidewalk or active transportation clearing this year, but will continue an effort launched last year to enhance clearing of those areas.
The city worked with community groups like Bike Winnipeg to determine which active transportation routes are the highest priority, he said.
He expects to see more people using those routes this season, as usual winter recreation options remain closed due to public health orders.
The city launched new features on its website for snow clearing this year, so residents can check an interactive status map to see crews’ progress during major plowing operations.
Spending time outdoors in the Manitoba winter still might not be everyone’s idea of fun, but Swanson said this is the year to change that attitude.
He’s focused on highlighting the benefits of winter in Winnipeg.
There’s magic out there waiting to be found, he said.
“We take … this embracing of winter pretty seriously,” he said. “We think this winter is going to be the winter that sort of defines us as a city, because it can sink us in a lot of ways.”
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