New Normal: 15 ways cities can emerge better than ever after COVID-19
People dine at a temporary patio space on the street outside a restaurant as cyclists ride past in Vancouver, on Sunday, July 12, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
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Canada spans roughly 10 million square kilometres and with a population of less than 38 million people, this country has one of the lowest population densities in the world.
But don’t let that fool you. Canada is a country of cities. More than 80 per cent of Canadians live in cities and more than one-third live in the Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver census metropolitan areas.
And it is in cities where the effects of the novel coronavirus pandemic have been most acutely felt. In the early days of lockdown, as COVID-19 took hold, vibrant, dense, bustling cities were all but shut down – with office buildings, shopping, night life, theatres and concert halls, museums, and sports venues all going dark.
There were early reports of a city exodus and something of an existential crisis emerged. Could cities survive when being in close proximity was the greatest risk of all? And wouldn’t remote work spell the end for the relentless urbanization of the 20th and 21st centuries?
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld weighed in with a New York Times op-ed making clear he was having none of the idea the battered metropolis is dead.
“Real, live, inspiring human energy exists when we coagulate together in crazy places like New York City,” he wrote.
“You think Rome is going away too? London? Tokyo? The East Village? They’re not. They change. They mutate. They re-form. Because greatness is rare. And the true greatness that is New York City is beyond rare.”
But there is no doubt that an examination is underway of what it means to live in cities in 2020 and what urban centres can learn from this crisis.
HOW CAN CITIES EMERGE BETTER THAN EVER?
CTVNews.ca called on four city experts to share their visions of the post-pandemic future of cities: Mary Rowe, president and CEO of the Canadian Urban Institute;Jason Thorne, general manager of planning and economic development at the City of Hamilton in southern Ontario; Patrick Condon, professor of urban design at University of British Columbia; and Howard Ramos, a professor of sociology at Western University in London, Ont.
Each is hopeful that if the lessons of COVID-19 are learned, Canada’s cities could become a lot more than they are right now: more livable, more sustainable, more resilient and more equitable.
This pandemic is just the latest in a long line of crises to expose the fault lines of cities, says Rowe. Neighbourhoods already under stress and without social cohesion are where people have died in the highest numbers.
“A crisis in homelessness, unhealthy overcrowding and decline of main street businesses all predated the pandemic,” she said.
“There are a bunch of corrections that are overdue, including equity, systemic racism and the right to housing. Everybody is talking about the big reset of COVID-19, but if we’re going to do it, we better do it right.”
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Rowe, a self-described optimist, sees the pandemic as a turning point that could lead to more livability and equity.
“This is a moment of extraordinary opportunity for cities,” she said in a phone interview from Toronto.
“Cities are organic. They are constantly changing and shifting, but it takes a lot to kill a city. They are going to morph and transform.”
The four experts laid out 15 measures that they believe could help Canada's cities move toward that successful future.
HEADING OFF A HOUSING CRISIS
Rapidly rising real estate prices have pushed many out of the market, led to suburban sprawl and ever-longer commutes. Rowe says equity funds and pension funds have snapped up urban housing in big cities, creating fractured neighbourhoods and many left shut out due to unaffordability.
It will require creative approaches to housing that balance the need for more density – which is better for sustainability – with the possibility that this pandemic could lead to apprehension about living in close quarters.
But Condon at UBC says much more than density, inequality has been a vector of the transmission of COVID-19. He’s writing a book exploring how the densest parts of cities, take New York City’s Manhattan for example, had much lower rates of the virus than other boroughs where residents live further apart but are much more likely to work in low wage, high-contact occupations.
In California, the highest transmission rates came in parts of cities with high minority populations where families of eight were crowded into a two-bedroom apartment.
Condon says Canada doesn’t keep the kind of data that makes these comparisons possible, but he believes its big cities would be no different.
“Sharing a lobby or pressing the same buttons has not been the problem; it’s crowded units in lower-income areas.”
So while the pandemic has demonstrated that public health is tied to social equity, Condon, author of Five Rules for Tomorrow’s Cities, hopes that translates into a renewed national commitment to addressing what has been an “alarming rise” in home prices that is driving people into unsafe and unhealthy housing.
The average home price in Canada has doubled in the last 15 years, while wages have essentially remained flat, he says.
“That is not sustainable without a social crisis. COVID is much more than the canary in the coal mine. It has revealed the structural flaws of a society grounded in inequality. Housings costs are a major driver of that.”
Part of the answer is ensuring developers include a mix of housing options that goes beyond only a nod to affordable units, says Rowe.
Ottawa did take a step forward with a pledge to spend $1-billion over the next six months to allow cities and housing providers to buy properties on the market because of the pandemic and convert them to housing for those at risk for homelessness.
Most critical, says Ramos at Western University, is the federal government getting back into developing housing policy that doesn’t simply hand it over to the market.
“Canada hasn’t ensured access to the housing market in decades. In Vienna, 40 per cent of residents live in subsidized housing. That simply means prioritizing affordable rents to ensure diverse neighbourhoods.”
Condon says governments at all levels need to crack down on land speculation that has led to skyrocketing land prices in major cities, forced middle and lower income earners to the suburbs, and required billions of dollars in transportation infrastructure.
He says we should be spending much less on megaprojects like subways, highways and bridges that deliver lower-income workers from the suburbs to city centres, and instead, invest in affordable housing close to where those jobs are.
When neighbourhoods are polarized into haves and have-nots, slums versus gated communities as in many U.S. cities, that’s what has led to the worst outcomes of the pandemic, along with increasing levels of tension, violence and decay, says Ramos.
“We have two choices: we can choose the U.S. route or we can choose Europe and the redistribution of wealth and mixed neighbourhoods. Both come with costs… but the U.S. is a cautionary tale.”
RISE OF NEIGHBOURHOODS
The biggest change since the pandemic began has come in the use of public spaces in city neighbourhoods, says Thorne in Hamilton.
“I think (the pandemic) has shown how dependent you are on your immediate neighbourhood. Can I buy what I need with a very short trip? Can I get to services I need, or amenities like playgrounds and still stay within my neighbourhood? I think that will have a lasting impact.”
Rowe also envisions even more focus on neighbourhoods, with increasing numbers of white-collar workers spending time working from home or in nearby co-working spaces, more government services available close to home, and campaigns to shop local main streets.
“It’s inevitable we’ll see more mixed uses in communities. After 9/11, there was concern that lower Manhattan would die because no one would want to work in office towers anymore. That didn’t happen. Office towers recovered, but the city also put in some housing in that neighbourhood. People said it would never work… but it’s worked and it’s a much more diverse neighbourhood now.”
BETTER USE OF EXISTING SPACES
Rowe hopes to see more adaptive, flexible uses of existing neighbourhoods spaces to answer social needs. Perhaps that means putting shared co-working units in libraries or converting night clubs into coffee shops in the day.
Churches and schools, which typically have long stretches of inactivity, could also be better utilized, says Rowe. Office towers could be adapted for mixed, to include housing, childcare, the growing of food, and light manufacturing.
The global financial crisis of 2008-2009 demonstrated that temporary land-use measures provide an economic shot in the arm – pop-up shops and converted shipping containers for urban agriculture, retail plazas, arts installations, for instance. The lingering reality of living in amid a pandemic could lead to more permanent shifts.
“If we’ve learned one thing, it should be that predictions of the future are just too difficult. So that means we need to build in flexibility in our streets, our office towers and our neighbourhoods.”
LIBRARIES AS COMMUNITY HUBS
Rowe hopes a new appreciation for libraries will last after the pandemic.
Libraries are anchors in their neighbourhoods where people can access quality information, get connected to local services, and meet people from different cultures and economic demographics, says Rowe.
“So much of our lives is segmented, where we are with people who are much like ourselves. But the dynamism of cities is that ideas and cultural manifestations come out of connections of people of different backgrounds. That’s what happens within libraries.”
During the pandemic, libraries have hosted virtual book clubs, pen pal programs, and even initiated phone trees during lockdown to talk seniors through downloading an app to borrow books.
Rowe thinks libraries will emerge as even stronger neighbourhood hubs – where residents can access outdoor amenities, get a flu shot, learn to navigate the digital world, and cast their ballots.
A restaurant patio is seen on Montreal's Mount Royal street, on Thursday, June 25, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
GREATER APPRECIATION OF OUTDOOR SPACES – AND NATURE’S CALL
Parks, trails and other green spaces have been packed this year with city-dwellers eager to stretch their legs and breathe in fresh air.
“People are out playing games, having picnics, throwing a ball,” said Rowe. “They just want to be outside. There’s been a sudden appearance of bike lanes and outdoor washrooms. That’s been a huge challenge for people wanting to be outside and people who live on the streets. It took a pandemic to provide human dignity.”
The pandemic has raised the profile of what associate professor Jelena Zikic and PhD candidate Victoriya Voloshyna at Toronto’s York University call the “edge spaces” that connect neighbours, such as porches, balconies, and strips of nature.
“A clear lesson from the many conversations across fence lines, waves from porches, teddy bears in windows and chalk art on footpaths is the need for our cities to better embrace edge spaces between private property and the public realm,” they wrote in June.
“…(A)s many a front-yard conversation or colourful display on a wall has shown us during the recent lockdown, it’s the spaces of transition that bring us together, even when we are apart.”
MAKING THE MOST OF NOOKS AND CRANNIES
Rowe is in love with the part of a quiet residential side street in her Toronto neighbourhood that is now a patio.
“I don’t want it to ever go away, it’s just the sweetest thing. But you have to ask: Why did it take a pandemic to bring life to our streets?”
Thorne didn’t notice a tiny alley beside one restaurant he frequents until it was strung with lights and turned into a narrow patio for about a dozen patrons.
“All these nooks and crannies that were once an afterthought are now suddenly important.”
And it doesn’t take much – perhaps a mural and some lights – to transform dead space to a “place people want to be.”
Thorne says COVID-19 has brought so much more retailing and dining to streets, sidewalks, parking lots and alleys due to strict capacity limits indoors and a reluctance among many to spend prolonged periods inside with strangers.
“I think we could see investors and entrepreneurs really consider opportunities for outdoor space when making decisions going forward. That adaptability of space will be important so that we’re not boxing ourselves in so we can only use space in one way.”
He expects to see more churches and schools use tents for outdoor services and classes.
STREETS THAT AREN’T JUST FOR CARS
“Anything that decreases the dependence on the car is a good thing for climate change and sustainability and for its effect on the family budget and the cost of urban infrastructure,” said Condon, who is founding chair of the UBC urban design program.
He would like to see more Canadian cities adopt Portland, Ore.’s approach to closing down sections of city blocks to car traffic.
“It lends a kind of Parisian or European feel … One positive thing is that things like that that would have been endlessly debated in city halls have happened in a matter of a month.”
Streets make up the largest allocation of public space in cities and are the backbone of the urban environment, says Rowe. Yet somewhere along the line in North America they’ve been handed over entirely to cars.
“Streets need to be for all and for people moving in all kinds of ways.”
She’s encouraged by the rapid appearance of new bike lanes in many cities since March, along with the conversion of traffic or parking lanes into patios and retail space.
Thorne agrees that cities and private property owners have been able to be nimble, but he wonders what will happen when traffic levels return to more normal levels.
“Space in cities is still a limited resource … as offices downtown start to repopulate, that competition for space will ramp up again. The math of parking versus patio has shifted. It will be interesting to see if it shifts back.”
Ramos expects that big-city streets will include more green spaces and pedestrian walkways.
In the U.K., a parent-led movement is pushing for the conversion of street space for child’s play.
Climate change is going to require more creative thinking about urban infrastructure, says Rowe. For instance, as severe weather events become more frequent, streets will need to be thought of as crucial storm water management conduits, says Rowe.
“As sea levels rise, streets in coastal cities may actually become canals one day. That’s not inconceivable.”
Cyclists negotiate a road crossing on a bike path in Toronto on Saturday, May 23, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
MORE RESIDENTS EMBRACING PEDAL POWER
Virtually overnight, cities across Canada and around the world converted traffic and parking lanes into bike and pedestrian lanes, or shut streets down entirely in response to sharp declines in vehicle traffic and transit ridership.
It didn’t require huge investments, in some cases, traffic cones, planters, paint and signs were all that was needed. Bikes became as hard to find this spring and summer as disinfectant wipes.
According to Western University kinesiology professor Henry Prapavessis, there is tremendous opportunity to shift more commuters to cycling. He says prior to the pandemic only a small proportion of people biked or walked to work: 6.7 per cent in Toronto, 7.2 per cent in Montreal and 9.1 per cent in Vancouver.
That compares to a 62 per cent bicycle commuter rate in the bike-friendly Copenhagen.
Research has shown that city residents – who tend to walk or bike much more often – have lower rates of obesity, heart disease, arthritis and diabetes than those living in the suburbs or rural areas.
A Quebec study in 2004 found much higher incidents of infant mortality, certain kinds of cancers, and death by suicide and car accidents in rural areas over urban ones. It also noted rural residents are more likely to be overweight and to smoke than city-dwellers.
A 2019 report found that the health divide is worsening in American cities. Research published in the American Journal of Public Health found rural communities had 77 excess deaths per 100,000 in 2004 when compared to urban centres. That disparity was 135 deaths per 100,000 in 2016.
TURNING TO ART
The pandemic has showcased how local arts communities rise in times of crisis to provide hope and meaning, says Rowe. That’s included mounting virtual productions, creating street art, from murals on park benches and alley walls, to digital animations on skyscrapers, and producing physically distanced events in outdoor spaces, rooftops, drive-in theatres, even front porches.
She hopes that translates post-pandemic into energizing existing spaces such as libraries, churches, pubs, community centres, streets and parks with cultural activities.
That will be especially important if arts venues don’t survive.
“We’ve got to take the assets we’ve got and bring those cultural activities,” she said. “The greatest antidote to impoverished neighbourhoods is repurposed and re-adapted spaces and bringing energy to places that others have written off.”
The key is connecting the dots between artists and entrepreneurs who can come together to reimagine their neighbourhoods, says Rowe.
In Hamilton, city officials approved the use of a city-owned parking garage for a series of rooftop concerts. The Art Gallery of Hamilton has used a tent for programming outdoors.
“I think it’s very exciting,” says Thorne. “It’s broken down these barriers that may have only been psychological barriers before.”
BREAK OUT THE WOOLLIES – EMBRACING WINTER IN CANADA
Thorne hopes to see Canadians bundle up and spend time socializing and eating outside this winter.
“We tend to not have a strong culture around spending time sitting outside in the winter. People in other northern countries eat and drink outside. We are already starting to look at options being outside this winter at restaurants and cafes.”
A LESS-PACKED COMMUTE
A sharp uptick in remote work could mean less crowded trains and buses and less congestion on highways and city streets. But no one knows for sure what the future of mobility is, says Thorne.
“When there is a vaccine or the pandemic has run its course, will we just go back to as it was before in terms of the mobility split or is there a fundamental shift to work from home?”
If the pandemic makes people reluctant to take mass transit, that could mean a shift to cars or bikes.
Rowe hopes to see more attention paid to flexible micro-transit options that help residents navigate their neighbourhoods, rather than large fixed subway routes that are designed to deliver masses into and out of the downtown.
Managing the effects of climate change, including rising sea levels and intense storms and heat waves, needs to a part of every discussion about buildings, parks, streets and every aspect of city life, says Thorne. But that has been a slowly building reality. COVID-19 has shown cities have to be prepared to turn on a dime.
“The reality is we will constantly be adapting to disruption. There is no such thing as stasis in a city. It’s a constant state of change.”
"A View From Two Sides," a work of art on the Adawe Crossing, is seen as a person walks below in the shallow waters of the Rideau River in Ottawa, on Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
EMERGENCE OF SECONDARY CITIES
Many of Canada’s secondary cities, including Halifax, Winnipeg, and London, have seen a renaissance over the last decade or so that’s been fuelled by attracting newcomers from Canada’s major cities and from abroad, says Ramos.
He expects that to only be accelerated by the pandemic as more people seek out affordability, and quality of life while being able to work more remotely.
“My hope as we go forward is that we will think more holistically about our cities and life as residents in them,” said Ramos. “Canada can benefit from the growth of secondary cities that have been largely overlooked. But it’s important that they don’t make the same mistakes as those cities people are leaving.”
That is going to require taking a hard look at housing affordability and the ever-rising debt-to-income ratio among Canadians, along with changing the stigma of renting, he says.
“We have an opportunity to ensure smaller cities remain vibrant. They can grow while retaining what people love about them.”
FOLLOWING THE ‘DESIRE PATH’
An engineer or city planner will design how a path should be installed in a new park based on their expertise and experience. But park-goers will express their thoughts on that park’s use – the desire path – with their active use of it.
“City-building has been far too pre-emptive, based on how a city should look rather than responding to what residents are asking for or how they are actually using their city,” said Rowe. “Planners come up with these big, bold plans that end up being off the mark.”
City planners should learn a lesson from the tech world, she says, where user-centric design is now an embedded principle and technology evolves based on user needs and how they are using existing products.
Flexibility and adaptability must be front of mind, she says.
“Cities are tangled gardens, not manicured lawns. We have to stop pretending that urban life can be contained in planning reports.”
LEARNING FROM EACH OTHER
Rowe at the CUI had an idea early in lockdown to create a crowdsourcing platform where city builders and residents can profile what was happening locally to help residents and businesses manage the pandemic. The result is CityShare and Rowe thinks it’s now a permanent fixture of the Canadian Urban Institute.
There are more than 700 examples of community initiatives from across Canada and around the world, including: the Vancouver Park Board shifting from growing flowers in its nursery to growing vegetables for families in need; Regina’s Urban Canvas project that beautifies doors in rear alleys; Halifax’s “slow streets” project that designated 20 streets as local traffic only to “ create a space for residents to walk, roll and cycle;” a range of recreational, arts and cultural initiatives in Toronto under the banner #ShowLoveTO; and the City of Montreal’s $22-million plan for an inclusive and green economic recovery.
International examples include Chicago’s Winter Dining Challenge, a project in Tokyo that tasked well-known architects to renovate public toilets in parks; and an international call for winter activation ideas for main streets and neighbourhoods.
“We’ve seen it in New York City after (Hurricane) Sandy and in New Orleans after (Hurricane) Katrina,” said Rowe. “Real innovation comes from the ground up. Governments are overwhelmed with keeping people safe, but ordinary people step up and improvise and come up with solutions.”