When the dust has settled, COVID-19 may actually improve our cities, forcing us to address a number of long-standing weaknesses and to boldly seize new opportunities. We will have learned from improvised “pilots” and adaptations that will not be reversed, and we will realize that the previous “normal” was not that great in many respects and that getting back to “normal” is not good enough.

Pre-COVID, we were already in the early stages of a rebound from a post-Second World War car-centric vision of the city. In some form or other, visionary goals were to be found in the planning documents of almost every contemporary city in the developed world and of many in the developing world. This reflects an effort to be more sustainable and at the same time more equitable, diverse, inclusive, productive and welcoming.

Central to this change is a rediscovery of many of the discarded virtues of the pre-war city – compact, walkable and mixed in use. A paradigm shift was underway in the older pre-war parts of city centres and with a time lag in post-war suburbs. This reshaping of the city was promising but with a very big to-do list and constant struggles in the trenches.

Conflating density and overcrowding

In 2020, COVID-19 erupted into our lives in North America. A first reaction in some circles was to question the very idea of the dense, compact, walkable city and to see it as a source of the problem. A widely circulated New York Times article by Brian Rosenthal on March 23 bore the alarming headline “Density Is New York City’s Big ‘Enemy’ in the Coronavirus Fight” and went on to proclaim “New York is more crowded than any large city in the country. That helps explain why it is the U.S. epicentre of the outbreak.”

With this statement, an old confusion from the early decades of the 20th century resurfaced, demonizing the city itself as disease-prone, with tenement living and sweatshops producing conditions of overcrowding, disease and industrial pollution. This critical misunderstanding conflating density and overcrowding of people was described by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities in this quote from the 1961 book:

“This confusion between high densities and overcrowding, which I will go into briefly because it so much interferes with understanding the role of densities, is another one of the obfuscations we have inherited from Garden City planning. The Garden City planners and their disciplines looked at slums which had both many dwelling units on the land (high densities) and too many people within individual dwellings (overcrowding), and failed to make any distinction between the fact of overcrowded rooms and the entirely different fact of densely built up land. They hated both equally, in any case, and coupled them like ham and eggs, so that to this day housers and planners pop out the phrase as if it were one word, ‘highdensityandovercrowding.’”

The real correlation, which we now understand, has to do with overcrowding (which can also occur in low densities) and poverty, leading to a nexus of conditions that create vulnerability to infectious disease like COVID. A 2014 study, Improving Health by Design in the Greater-Toronto Hamilton Area, by Peel Public Health, points out that sustainable community design helps combat high rates of hypertension, diabetes, obesity and heart disease – all of which are exacerbated by an automobile-dependent lifestyle – and that those design elements can also help lessen the spread of infectious diseases. (Figure 1)

In fact, sustainable, walkable, mixed-use neighbourhoods have many of the very characteristics that are defences against both infectious and chronic disease, and that make them resilient in a pandemic, while also addressing the existential threat of human-induced climate change by reducing auto emissions.

“15-20 minute” neighbourhoods

Walkability is a key indicator of success in this changing world. What we have seen is the widespread adoption around the world of the concept of a “city of proximity,” shorthand for 15-20-minute neighbourhoods, where almost all of the necessities of daily life are available within a short walking distance. Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, ran her successful campaign for re-election based on the evocative slogan Paris: la ville du quart d’heure.

If anything, COVID-19 intensifies that momentum. It has shone a bright light on every one of the daunting challenges we were already facing in making the shift to more sustainable ways of living in cities – vulnerable populations, affordability, mobility, aging infrastructure, climate change and the need for public space. But rather than throwing us off course, it is functioning as a “particle accelerator,” highlighting deficiencies and vulnerabilities, and in many cases pushing us to do things more rapidly and nimbly than we were already trying to do.

We are being forced to see the conditions of homelessness in our midst and acknowledge the real tensions and cracks in our self-perception as a tolerant and inclusive society, to confront who is most vulnerable and why, who is being most affected by COVID in marginalized BIPOC communities, as well as essential workers from health-care providers to grocery clerks, and the migrant workers who harvest our crops. We have seen how our prized “walkable” inner-city neighbourhoods have become less affordable for new arrivals and those from marginalized communities, and thus a troubling problem stemming from our success. That made us question whether this displacement is inevitable. How can the city be truly equitable and inclusive?

COVID adaptations will have lasting repercussions

It has been painful, but what COVID has also shown is that faced with these challenges, cities have an in-built capacity to adapt and improvise under duress, overcoming inertia and rapidly pivoting. In many cases, these COVID adaptations will have lasting and positive repercussions. We have seen that city dwellers are resourceful and for the most part care about each other, demonstrating the benefits of neighbourhood micro-communities as social support networks in finding adaptations like community fridges. Acts of kindness and unprecedented volunteerism have abounded, drawing on a deep well of social capital.

We are also seeing this focus on community well-being and equity at the national and sub-national level, underscoring the vital role that governments play in our lives, with positive implications for cities. Bolder “recovery budgets” and long-awaited programs have come forward under the rubric of “build back better,” addressing such needs as universal daycare, additional support for long-term care, a range of affordable housing programs, more aggressive climate targets, the green shift in the economy, and systemic racism and reconciliation.

An expanded role for government programs is challenging many sacred cows like the belief that private sector solutions are superior for long-term care. In many cases, civil society has been leading the way, pressuring governments. Despite some outbreaks of denial and resistance to public health measures, for the most part people have demonstrated resolve, calling upon a newfound willingness to act with a shifting societal consensus around addressing these intractable issues.

Among the most dramatic and visible changes at the city level has been the move to reclaim streets as public space, dramatically accelerating transformations we were making anyway, but now faster and in more locations. In city after city, we have seen an emerging network of increasingly vital, safe, linear public spaces incorporating bike lanes and outdoor patios reappropriating traffic lanes to offer city dwellers expanded, safe and enjoyable routes for recreation, exploring and commuting. As that happens, we are experiencing cleaner air.

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Parks have become Canada’s version of the piazza

Toronto has joined dozens of cities around the world (from Berlin to Bogota, New York, Paris, Oakland, Milan, Vilnius, Vancouver and Calgary) that are rapidly expanding networks of “safeways” to move around the city during the pandemic, turning over hundreds of kilometres of traffic lanes and in many cases entire streets to pedestrians and cyclists. These new safeways are both a critical response to the current moment and part of a solution toward a safe and sustainable post-COVID future.

Equally dramatically, parks are becoming shared outdoor living rooms in unprecedented ways. COVID-19 has also put an intense spotlight on our need for parks as a vital release from our forced confinement.

In dozens of cities around the world, we are seeing an irrepressible demand for safe and accessible outdoor space, and people have been taking to their parks like never before. The park has become Canada’s version of the Italian piazza, our essential shared commons. I see it in my neighbourhood in Toronto, where every available park space has become an intensely used outdoor living room for all ages late into the evening hours and even in winter.

In the centre of Vilnius, Lithuania, May 2020, the streets gave over some space to restaurants and cyclists. Shutterstock.com

This health crisis has put a premium on public spaces where people of all ages can get out and participate in active pastimes, from simply walking and cycling to a whole range of year-round sports and athletic activities close to where they live and work, making these health-promoting activities part of their daily life routines.

With time, it can be anticipated that the examples of “green connections” that we are creating on the fly today will become the rule. With the shift to a more expansive sense of a park-like public realm, a new liberating “reading” of the city will emerge, no longer orienting itself only or primarily by highways and major arterials but increasingly by connected networks of common space serving as guideways throughout the city. This heightened awareness of the need for human contact and interaction in public space – particularly in heterogeneous societies like ours with an ambition for inclusiveness – has raised important questions about our headlong rush to embrace technology and retreat into virtual cyber-worlds.

Will office concentration rebound post-pandemic?

Among the many impacts of COVID, there has been a forced renegotiation of our relationship to the digital world and its intersection with “in-person” life. Technology was already intruding into every aspect of our lives and our cities at a galloping pace, and raising fundamental questions. In this time of COVID, it has undoubtedly functioned as a lifesaver, enabling many of us to continue working, to continue in some form with education via online learning, and has compelled us to advance in areas like online delivery of health care. On the other hand, it has demonstrated how profoundly we miss each other’s company “in real life” and has raised fundamental questions about how we balance the in-person and the virtual as we enter recovery and as we inevitably change the way we live, work, learn and relate to each other, and the services on which we rely.

Can this lead, in fact, to a better life/work balance that does not rely on daily commutes from bedroom dormitory suburbs on fixed schedules to remote workplaces, and that propels the development of dispersed mixed-use 20-minute neighbourhoods, combining living and working in more flexible arrangements? There is some evidence of such an “exodus” or dispersal from the city core as some seek more affordable living options, taking advantage of the ability to work from home. But this is not necessarily worrisome and may in fact be beneficial, accelerating a movement that was already in play.

The Go train in Hamilton, Ont. Shutterstock.com

At the other end of the commute, COVID has also raised doubts about the viability of Toronto’s financial district (roughly 100 acres) as a concentrated single-use monoculture. While life continues around it in mixed-use neighbourhoods, this area is a veritable “ghost town” – its streets and underground mall deserted. Occupancy dropped to around seven per cent, according to the Strategic Regional Research Alliance. Is this temporary or a harbinger of a longer-term shift in the nature of office work? It is unlikely that this office concentration will come back the way it was. 

“If you want to try to find a silver lining in a pandemic,” Jan De Silva, president and CEO of the Toronto Region Board of Trade,” said in an interview, “the concentration of jobs and economic activity in the downtown Toronto central business district was simply not sustainable. We were bursting at the seams. There was no real estate to be had. Our transit network just couldn’t keep up. The congestion and the housing affordability, all of that was a house of cards that at some point was going to collapse. So, what the pandemic is doing, what we see happening, is the broader distribution of jobs and economic activity.”

Moving beyond monocultures

COVID may be moving us beyond monocultures of single use, spurring suburban transformation and accelerating the development of a healthier form of a “regional city” in the Greater Golden Horseshoe area around Toronto and Hamilton – many centres rather than a concentric radial pattern focused on one highly focused employment district.

In 1951, the American poet Robert Frost wrote “America is Hard to See,” and here is an excerpt:

“But all he (Columbus) did was spread the room
Of our enacting out the doom
Of being in each other’s way,
And so put off the weary day
When we would have to put our mind
On how to crowd and still be kind.”

I believe he was describing the restless migration of Europeans to and across the “New World” seeking new frontiers while denying the fact that the land was already inhabited. In the end, they ran out of space to distance themselves and were forced to confront each other.

One of the things COVID has clearly done is underscore our mutual dependencies and reveal the ways in which our lives are intertwined. Many previously unquestioned assumptions have been challenged, fault lines revealed and seeds sown for new directions leading to more sustainable, just and equitable cities for all. We have seen that equity is resilient and that an atomized society copes poorly with events like the pandemic. Whether we emerge from this crisis with the resolve to make real and lasting change, “building back better” is up to us.

This article is part of the Reshaping Canada’s Cities After the Pandemic Shockwave special feature. 

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