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Serpentine Maze Pop Up Parks in a Time of Pandemic

Where I live in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, we were under Critical Code Red COVID restrictions from mid-November to mid-February. Within this setting, I was beginning to really miss my friends, a sentiment shared by most everyone. While we would meet up for physically-distanced, masked walks, the lack of our usual sense of community exacerbates the uncertainty sparked by the pandemic. This seems to be a global feeling. On one of our walks on the banks of the Assiniboine River in late November, we discussed ways that we could gather safely, stay connected, have some fun, and give back to our neighbours.

We’ve talked a lot here about how the number one contributor to wellbeing – once your basic needs are cared for – is sociability. And about how loneliness is more dangerous than smoking and more prevalent than depression, but that we don’t know as much about it because we are less likely to talk about being lonely. We’ve discussed at length about how places where it’s easy to get around on foot are likely to be more sociable and create the strong community ties that lead to resilience. And how the healthiest neighbourhoods are both walkable and have access to nature.

Ideas in Action

So, with all of that in mind, on Christmas Day, our river was finally strong enough to safely cross in most places. That’s the day that we started digging the Serpentine Maze at Hugo Dock, a series of simple figure-eight shapes about 265 feet long and 40 feet wide at the ends. The helix shape encourages people to stay physically-distanced but socially connected in a meditative kind of way. Seating areas of movable wooden chairs at one end and a couple “snofa’s” at the other make it a somewhat reflective place to check out with a friend or two, or as we’ve found with maze tending, to make a few new friends.

Maze builders, from near to far: Hazel Borys, Serena Keshavjee, Charlene Brown, Kathryn Reddy. Not pictured: Stephen Borys, Hennie Corrin, and Liv Valmestad. Thanks also to occasional Maze keepers, Susan Millican, Wanda Koop and Steve Hunter. And to 19 poets, more on that later. Photo credit: Stephen Borys.

There are seven of us total who designed and built the maze, at a maximum of five at a time to comply with local COVID regulations. Most of us are within a five-minute walk from our homes, which have increasingly become our offices. We’ve hearkened to winter city placemaking best practices, and over time added discarded Christmas trees to reduce wind tunnels and provide microclimates, built southern-facing lounges as sunpits, brought solar powered garden lights to provide evening light, and frozen brightly colored berries and flowers in ice to warm up with the space with some color. The hashtags are #BeHereWinnipeg #WinterCity #Placemaking.

Winterberries are frozen into ice vases formed by 5-gallon buckets. So far, no one has bothered the wooden chairs, except for a bit of normal wear and tear.

Discarded Christmas trees are repurposed to form microclimates and reduce wind tunnels.

Southern facing sun pit is lined with coniferous trees to block the wind and deciduous trees above to let in the sunlight. The serpentine maze is for walking, with skaters, skiers, and sledders encouraged to stick to the machine-maintained trails nearby.

Maze builders Liv Valmestad, Kathryn Ready, and Serena Keshavjee sip hot soup (blended sweet potato, carrot, onion) and hot tea (fresh ginger, cinnamon stick, star anise, lemon, and raw honey) between shoveling duty one recent Saturday.

Just around the bend, Marlene Stern and friends sculpted an ice lounge with more ice globes, frozen berries, and branches. Kick sled pictured here with my Irish Water Spaniel, Liadan, is from the excellent Icicle Garden (part of Bicycle Garden) in the next neighbourhood of Wolseley. Payment is by donation only for rental of skis, sleds, snow shoes, and fat bikes, with all proceeds going to Winnipeg Trails, who've groomed more than more than 30 cross-country ski and walking loops in city neighbourhoods, and say:

We are in the business of community-building more than anything else. We do that by connecting people with safe and comfortable ways to be outside and to move so that we can see each other face to face."

Poetry on Ice

To expand the community engaged with growing the maze, we ran a poetry contest on winter, with winning submissions getting frozen into ice along the way. As of the contest close on January 31, there are 22 winning poets. The ice globes that punctuate the poetry are made by freezing food or juice-colored water in balloons.

Submissions are original new work with permission from the author or favorites from the public domain. Here are a selection of the winners. Click images for large view, used here with permission of poets, but otherwise all rights reserved, except for those within the public domain by Emily Bronte, William Carlos Williams, Thomas Hardy, Richard Meier, and Shaun O'Brien.

The maze lets us be together and stay active and encouraged, as a small group of friends. What we weren’t prepared for was the community response. We know that gratitude combats depression and contributes to wellbeing, and we’ve received more gratitude for this one pop-up park than in recent memory. After every snowfall or as we are installing new ice, almost everyone who walks by says, “Thanks!” Or one particularly generous young man intoned:

The simple pleasures of this place renew my faith in humanity.”
Winterberries donated by Petals West. 5-gallon bucket forms borrowed from Beyond Flowers.

Our neighbourhood is one of the highest residential density in Western Canada, with thousands of eyes on the river. People have come down to see what we are up to, out of curiosity, and many tell us they’ve never set foot on the river or its banks before. Now we see them almost every day.

We didn’t realize our way to hang out with friends and add a cheerful pop-up park in our neighbourhood was a big enough deal to make it onto CBC The National once, twice, then three times, or onto the cover of a local magazine, The Sou-wester, or onto CBC Information Radio.

Implementing The Pandemic Toolkit

Maybe the interest is in part because the pop-up park at #BeHereWinnipeg is one way to help implement the Pandemic Toolkit, including actions:

4: "enable outdoor learning... via use of parkland,"

9: "expedite temporary uses," and

10: "increase access to nature ... via pocket parks."

You’ll find the Pandemic Toolkit in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Hindi, Turkish, and Bangladeshi for free use here. The toolkit is another volunteer effort, sparking interest from a global community, with these 8 languages representing 6 out of the top 10 most spoken. This level of interest and support speaks to the quiet resolve of people globally committed to rebuild the local economic engines of households, businesses, and governments.

Free Ways to Learn More

If you’d like to dive a little deeper into the toolkit, check out:

East end lounge of the Serpentine Maze at Hugo Dock is seen in the sun pit, beside the Winnipeg Foundation Centennial Trail, with three different surfaces groomed for skating, skiing, and walking / fat biking / sledding. From here, it's a leisurely 40-minute walk to The Forks, at the centre of the city.

Back to the home front, the maze has been the welcoming committee for a much bigger initiative. Every year, The Forks welcomes winter with massive outdoor activities, usually including the longest staking rink in the world. This year, the trail is at its best thanks to support from The Winnipeg Foundation, celebrating its 100-year birthday as Canada’s oldest community foundation, where I am grateful to serve on the board. By January, The Centennial Trail reached 5 kilometers long of three trails groomed for skating, cross country skiing, and walking/sledding/fat biking. We worked closely with The Forks to provide early plans for the Serpentine Maze, to steer clear of this larger initiative and to fall in line with their ice safety testing procedures. In the past, the trail has stretched up to 14 kilometers, and unofficial beaten paths on the river are that long already, with other community members hosting other great pop-ups along the way. The Forks started grooming The Red River by late January.

In late January, the landscape got richer as The Warming Huts v.2021 winners were announced, an arts and architecture competition on ice, installed along The Centennial Trail. Since its inception in 2009, the competition attracts architects and artists from around the world, along with Winnipeggers to spend enjoyable time outside, despite being the third coldest big city on earth.

Past winners of The Warming Huts competition. Watch for a new book celebrating the process out soon, with Peter Hargraves of Sputnik Architecture as the lead author.

Wherever you are in your neck of the woods, hoping you’re finding a way to stay encouraged and connected.

– Hazel Borys @hborys twitter @h_borys instagram

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Hazel Borys
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All photos are copyrighted by Hazel Borys