By: dan kellar
The practice of “place making” in urban design and “pedestrianisation” of urban spaces and downtown cores have been methods used to address well-being and connectedness of a city’s residents and boost health and safety of an entire population.
In 2019, noting the lack of a permanent pedestrian zone in the downtown and being long concerned about the safety of residents when getting around the city while not in their cars, local musician, community organiser, downtown shop owner, and Kitchener resident Sam Nabi amplified an idea on twitter – transform “Gaukel Street”, the short quiet road starting at city hall and leading down to the entrance to Willow River Park (aka Victoria park), into a pedestrian zone.
In Waterloo Region, while the number of collisions involving automobiles being driven into pedestrians and cyclists has been trending down for years, in 2020 (which is the most recent year with data available) there were still 67 people not in a car or on a bike who were driven into by driver of an automobile, and another 78 collisions involving people driving automobiles and people on bicycles. The plurality of these collisions occur at intersections or in crosswalks where the pedestrian or cyclist has the right of way, and the driver of an automobile was found to be inattentive.
Over the years in Kitchener, local advocates and some dedicated city staff have worked to implement more accessible, friendly, and safe neighbourhoods with a lot of attention being focused in the downtown core. For many years, King St through the downtown has been occasionally closed to car traffic during certain days or weeks for special events or holiday markets, but the area was always returned to its car-centric design for the majority of the year.
As popular “human scale” urbanist Brent Toderian has said, “The truth about a city’s aspirations isn’t found in its vision. It’s found in its budget.”, and through the cooperative efforts of community members and city staff, funding for Gaukel St pedestrianisation was included in the 2019-2020 budget. Subsequent years’ budgets have seen continued funding to accomplish a more comprehensive project.
In May and June 2023, after several years of more casual organising around the space, as approvals and permits were worked out, the first section of the fully pedestrianized Gaukel Block opened with more permanent features, dedicated booking options for the public, and a full schedule of community events through the summer.
Today’s show features an interview with Sam Nabi about the successful campaign to have Gaukel Street in downtown Kitchener, converted into the “Gaukel Block” pedestrian area, as well as a discussion of budget priorities, the effects of neoliberal economic thinking on public space, the importance of grassroots place making initiatives, and what is happening on Gaukel.
This program is a part of the “Local Journalism Initiative” and is funded by the Community Radio Fund of Canada, Heritage Canada, and the CKMS Newsroom.
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