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LETTER: Reader hopes more 'active transportation' boosts local business

'Imagine our streets being more livable, equitable and stress free to all users especially pedestrians and cyclists,' he says
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The following letter to the editor was submitted to GuelphToday by reader Mike Darmon who hopes to see some of the temporary changes made in response to COVID-19 become permanent:

For someone who is physically active, COVID--19 and the reality of the early messaging from Public Health to "stay inside'' along with social distancing requirements immediately instilled a sense of fear and anxiety in me. My daily walking or biking routine was disrupted and we all hoped the pandemic would end soon so we could get back to some sense of normal.

Many of us love the great outdoors, and our City of Guelph offers so many wonderful opportunities to experience it, without ever leaving the city. Walking or biking on our tree-lined trails in Riverside Park or Royal City Park, or simply dining on a patio with friends, especially on a warm evening, my first choice was and is a destination outdoors.

One of my main destinations is our historic downtown. On Saturday mornings a visit to our farmers market is my favourite place to connect with friends and support our local farmers. Riding along the Trans Canada Rail Trail with glimpses of our Speed River offers me peace and quiet  and an antidote from the daily stress of our busy lives.

Arriving downtown, my biggest decision may be whether to have coffee before or after shopping at the Farmers Market. Perhaps I will stop at Eric the Baker on Carden Street Market Square and sit at his tiny patio with fresh coffee and a croissant? With views of kids splashing in the wading pond and shoppers wandering along the wide pedestrian walkways, there is always something going on even if its just observing people and tourists. One can imagine oneself in a similar experience on a street in Paris or Montreal - and why not?

But after more than two months and heading into warm weather, my new fear is for these small businesses we love to support, may close their doors permanently. Many are completely closed under Provincial orders and some have been able to at least have some sales available for pickup or delivery, but this will not financially work for them much longer. Indeed, according to Shanna Munro, the president and CAO of Restaurants Canada, if things do not change for the better in the next few months, "one out of every two independent restaurants does not expect to survive."

Most of us are longing to once again have a meal with friends or family at our favourite restaurant and for the start of reopening more of the economy in Ontario.

The recent announcement of phased re-openings of the economy in other provinces  and new messaging from Public Health - especially from Dr Bonny Henry the Provincial Health Officer for B.C. - was what everyone needed to hear most. As long as we continue to maintain "physical distancing" of two metres and we do not congregate, being outside is safe and encouraged with the risk of getting ill from COVID-19 according to Dr Henry being "infinitesimally small."

However, maintaining physical distancing for businesses like restaurants will be a challenge. They cannot survive the next six months on takeout or curbside pickup alone. They need more space to expand and with limited space inside the only space available is outside. So how do we help the businesses we love to frequent get through this challenging time?

Fortunately one way is to follow what other cities like Winnepeg, Vancouver, Calgary and Hamilton are already doing in reimagining our public spaces, and our downtown is ideally suited for this transformation. We have ample parking and bypasses surrounding the core of downtown.

Just imagine our streets being more livable, equitable and stress free to all users especially pedestrians and cyclists. These are the types of places we all wish we could visit someday but we have a unique opportunity to experience it right here and right now in Guelph. Imagine people-prioritized streets with large patios and even shopping items on display outside on wide sidewalks, separated from slowed down traffic?

Carden Street can be a model for other streets with its flexible design where they could also become car-free on specified days  and be safe places for shoppers, diners, families and tourists. Wyndham Street for example, could be planned to become like Carden Street and be two vehicle lanes instead of the current four, so we will have all this extra public space to reimagine it for people like other great cities are doing. Details like deliveries, pickups and parking can be incorporated into low cost pilot projects that are flexible and easy to modify in consultation with downtown businesses.

We need to think beyond our downtown and support many areas of our city. Other cities are looking at turning parts of parking lots, laneways and other spaces into public spaces for dining and shopping.

"Slow streets" can also be incorporated into many areas of our city too. Neighbourhood streets can become a network of streets connecting many destinations safely using active transportation like walking or biking. These types of streets allow pedestrians and bikers to practice safe physical distancing and offer physical and mental health benefits.

Physical distancing may be with us for some time to come and the pandemic has actually given us an opportunity to reimagine and change our public spaces that truly make our cities more livable. I for one hope many of these temporary changes become permanent. Our mayor has been fully supportive of prioritizing more active transportation.

Investing in these infrastructures by all levels of government is vital now during COVID-19, but a smart long-term investment for a healthy, vibrant and environmentally sustainable future for all cities.

But above all we need to act fast and have a plan ready when restrictions are eased on restaurants and other small businesses if we want them to survive.

Hope to see you on a patio soon enjoying a local beer and amazing food along with good company.

Mike Darmon