Clear Sidewalks and Close Neighbours

Shovelling snow is a chore as familiar to most Canadians as folding laundry. 

Some shovellers enjoy waking before dawn like a song sparrow in spring. They are the first ones to make that crunchy rhythmic chorus that will soon be echoed by the rest of the block.

Others swear under their breath and begrudgingly set their morning alarm an hour earlier than normal as the next morning’s forecast sinks in. They’ll need to walk the dog, make lunches, drag the kids out of bed, put out the trash, and shovel several inches of snow to get everyone out the door by 8 a.m.

Wherever you may fall on the snow shovelling spectrum, however, you’d be lying if the thought of rolling out of bed, slipping on some Sorels, and firing up a snow blower has never crossed your mind. 

Kootenay resident prepares for winter

Charles Arnold has been shovelling Kootenay snow off of sidewalks, driveways, and front steps for the past 24 years. And like many Canadian homeowners who want to save their time and lumbar muscles, when he moved out to a larger, more rural property, he finally bought a snow blower. 

But when Charles went to put down his last deposit on a new snow blower this past fall, driving nearly 1,000 kilometers east to St. Albert, Alberta, to get his hands on one was not something he had planned for.

“In July I went to our local Honda dealer and put money down to pre-order one they had coming in,” he says. “It was the last one they had ordered. The day I went in to pay my final instalment, they had just figured out they were getting shorted on their supply.” 

Owning a snow blower is not always an option 

Charles’ situation isn’t unique to the Kootenays. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an increase in demand for snow blowers as more Canadians are home this winter. This paired with supply chain disruptions, has meant that machines such as snow blowers have been difficult for companies, and in turn customers, to obtain. 

For some, the very idea of maintaining, operating, and purchasing a piece of equipment that ranges in price from $800 to $8,000 is reason enough to make a $50 shovel look pretty darn good.

Still, keeping sidewalks clear in the winter months can be a challenge. This is a season where tempers flare, letters to the editor get sent, and fines are written up. A pattern repeats itself, year after year, one winter to the next. 

Unless you live in Kitchener, Ontario that is.

Shovel-free life builds community

Prior to 2018, Lori Costigan had never used a snow blower. That year, she saw an advertisement on Facebook from the City of Kitchener that caught her attention. It read: “Neighboured-Shared Snow Blower Program.” 

Kitchener was running a pilot program that offered $500 grants to groups of residents who wanted to share a snow blower in their neighbourhood. At least four members had to apply, and the snow blower could be used to clear snow from private walkways and driveways on the condition that it would also be used to clear sidewalks. 

Lori proposed the idea to her neighbours, and shortly afterwards she and nine other families put in their application. 

“Because of the way our neighbourhood is I didn’t think it would be hard,” she says. “Everyone looks out for one another.” 

Central Frederick is Lori’s idyllic neighbourhood. It is located in downtown Kitchener, is brimming with rows of grand oak and maple trees, and has a vibrant neighbourhood association that hosts garden tours, public meetings, and an outdoor lantern festival every March called Shiverfest. 

“In my application I had to draw a map of the area,” Lori remembers. “It would show all of the sidewalks that would get cleared and because one person in our group was a fireman, he said he would make sure that a free hydrant would always be clear and accessible.”

Each family pledged to pitch in an additional $50 so they could purchase a high-end machine and an extra $10 for gas and maintenance costs. Only one family in the group had a garage, so they agreed to store the snow blower and get a security system that everyone else could access with a code. The city accepted their application.

“It was meant to be,” Lori laughs. “The area we live in has a school on one end and a grocery store at the other. There is a lot of foot traffic. People walking dogs, people in wheelchairs. It’s good for everybody.”

If you clear it, they will come

From 2013 to 2018, there were 527 collisions involving vehicles and cyclists or pedestrians in Kitchener; three were fatalities. 

Shifting from an automobile dependent transportation network to one where walking and cycling is safe and viable has been a growing priority for Kitchener for the past five years. And while ensuring that communities have safe and accessible sidewalks year-round can include enforcement and education, using a creative approach can be equally effective.

“It’s been so easy,” Lori says. “There have been no issues. Everyone works at different jobs and at different times and there is never a conflict with anybody using it. If I see Greg using it that morning, I’ll ask him to use it after or he’ll come by and do it for me.”

Lori takes her turn with the neighbourhood snow blower this winter.

Lori’s younger sister, Sue Costigan, lives in the same neighborhood and is also a participant of the program. 

“It feels somehow environmentally friendly, too,” Sue says. “Because instead of eight families each owning this big thing and eventually those ending up broken down and in a landfill, only one is needed! That’s huge!” 

Recipients of Kitchener’s shared snow blower pilot program like the Central Frederick neighbourhood group continue to own and maintain the snow blowers for community use today. Sidewalks remain clear for passing pedestrians and neighbours are closer than ever.

“I found it got us to know some neighbours we didn’t know,” says Sue Costigan. “It’s been a lovely little connection between people and such a cooperative, feel-good thing.”

We live in an increasingly connected world that values paying for experiences, services and events over owning stuff, and examples of this shift are everywhere. Car-shares exist in nearly every city, homeowners renting out their rooms to tourists are generating extra income, and global revenues from the sharing economy are projected to grow from US $15 billion today to US $335 billion by 2025. Sharing lawn mowers, snow blowers, and other tools can support local businesses, save time and money, and help us connect with our neighbours. 

Kootenay resident Charles Arnold was able to get his hands on a new snow blower this year. For those of us who have not been so lucky, or who would be happy to share, putting on a mask, knocking on a neighbour’s door, and seeing if they are interested in a sharing one might not be a bad idea. Just don’t forget to bring your shovel.