How COVID-19 could change the way cities look and operate after the lockdowns
Physical distancing measures have already affected street use, transit and buildings
Illustrations by Joan Dymianiw
In the span of a few short months, we have witnessed the emergence of a new coronavirus and watched it kill more than 200,000 people worldwide, bedevil the health-care system, batter the global economy and change how (and where) we work.
While some cities have eased lockdown restrictions, physical distancing measures that health officials say are crucial to halting the spread of COVID-19 will likely be with us for months, if not longer. They are already having an effect on activity levels and the flow of cities, and planners, architects and designers are seeing changes both in Canada and around the world that could become permanent.
Rachel MacCleery, senior vice-president at the Urban Land Institute, a city planning think-tank in Washington, D.C., said that "over the short and long term, certain aspects of city life will shift," from the use of streets and transit to the design of spaces inside buildings.
Every major calamity, from the 19th-century cholera outbreaks to the 2013 floods in Calgary, has provided valuable lessons in better city-building, said John Brown, president of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. For example, the identification of waterborne diseases forced authorities to rethink water and sewage infrastructure and "led to the whole notion of city planning."
But COVID-19 poses a unique challenge. Ensuring people have access to transit, shopping amenities and fresh air, all while maintaining a two-metre distance, is difficult in high-density areas.
The importance of streets
Brent Toderian, a former chief city planner for Vancouver who now runs a city planning consultancy, said "the biggest conversation during the pandemic is the role of streets as a principal public space in cities."
As a result of our collective self-isolation, there are fewer cars on the road. At the same time, people are seeking respite outdoors by walking. But it is increasingly challenging to maintain a respectful distance on sidewalks without veering into traffic.
WATCH: How cities may change to allow for physical distancing:
"The irony is that as people are walking out onto the street to give reasonable space to their neighbours on the sidewalk, they are risking safety," said Toderian.
Some municipalities are taking bold action to address this. Last week, the Italian city of Milan announced "Strade Aperte," a plan to transform 35 kilometres of streets to expand cycling and walking space. In reducing car capacity, it will have the dual effect of providing a safe outlet for walkers and reducing air pollution. Berlin, Budapest and Mexico City are just some of the cities proposing similar measures.
In the interests of less physical contact and more consideration for pedestrians, Toderian said city officials should deactivate crosswalk buttons (what some urbanists call "beg buttons") and program the crossings to light up at frequent intervals — something Calgary recently did.
Calgary was also quick to close a number of city streets to cars in order to provide an outlet for cyclists and pedestrians. Other cities have gone significantly further. Oakland, Calif., for example, closed 119 kilometres — 10 per cent of its entire street network – to through-traffic.
A Colombian model
Amanda O'Rourke, executive director of the Toronto-based urban design consultancy 8 80 Cities, said one of the most interesting models is Bogota, Colombia. This city of 7.4 million is starved for public space, and so back in 1974 it established the Ciclovía — every Sunday between 7 a.m. and 2 p.m., 120 kilometres of arterial city streets are closed to motorized traffic.
The Ciclovía has become a festival for cyclists, walkers, skateboarders and others, and every week, about 1.5 million people take part. While that sort of physical proximity isn't recommended right now, O'Rourke said the Ciclovía is "a resiliency strategy."
"You can open it every day," she said, pointing out that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ciclovía has become "a corridor for essential workers and relieves some of the pressure on public transit."
The challenge of transit
Indeed, public transit is a crucial element of any cityscape, as many people can't rely on a car to get around. Most cities are reporting a drop in public transit use during the pandemic, and it's likely to remain lower than usual in the short term, said Ahsan Habib, director of the school of planning at Dalhousie University.
"Even if the disease is eradicated, there will be a perceived risk in [public transit]," Habib said.
During the pandemic, American cities such as Atlanta, Chicago and Denver have made several adjustments to their transit systems, including suspending fares and allowing rear-door boarding.
Habib said that ultimately, cities must invest in ways to make buses and streetcars less prone to crowding. "We need new terminals, we need new markings, new seating arrangements."
Besides streets, parks play a key role in cities. Although she agrees with roping off playgrounds and other recreational structures to minimize the risk of transmitting the coronavirus via surfaces, O'Rourke said parks themselves must stay open because they "provide space for mental and physical health."
"Parks and open spaces really prove their value in this current environment," said MacCleery. She noted that they form a "natural network" with streets, and together can be used to create alternate ways for people to move within a city.
For example, to accommodate more cyclists and pedestrians, Vancouver announced earlier this month that Stanley Park would be closed to cars (except for the Stanley Park Causeway, or Highway 99, which leads to the Lions Gate Bridge).
New ways to work
Among other things, the pandemic has demonstrated the feasibility of letting a large part of the labour force work from home. While not everyone can telecommute, enough people are able to do so that it could reduce demand for physical offices, which could in turn affect the proliferation of highrise buildings.
"I'm having a number of conversations with companies that are saying, 'We may not need the space that we have,'" said John Brown, who also runs a Calgary-based architecture firm called Housebrand.
In light of physical distancing directives, he said offices that do remain open will likely rethink the open-concept model that's been so pervasive in recent decades.
He said telecommuting may also have an impact on the layout of homes, as residents seek to carve out discrete corners in even the tiniest condo suite to have a private Zoom meeting.
"People are saying … 'I need a separate space — and it needs to be separate from my spouse's [work] space.'"
One of the essential services during the pandemic has been grocery stores, which have not only kept us fed but developed a series of measures to protect shoppers and employees.
While these protocols aren't standardized, they have included reducing the number of entrances into the store; limiting the number of customers inside at any given time; marking a safe distance between shoppers; and in some cases, introducing one-way aisles.
Brown said any kind of retail store "could follow the grocery-store model," just by "subtly adjusting the way people move."
Allowing people to eat in restaurants will likely be a more complicated task, Brown said, and will probably involve less densely packed dining areas and fewer patrons at one time.
Brown said the biggest challenge is probably going to be places "where we congregate for assembly uses, like churches, cinemas, theatres and stadiums."
Sports venues are particularly tricky, he said, as they are most successful — both in terms of profit and as a social experience — when they're packed. "How do we manage that? You can't just say we'll leave every third seat free."
MacCleery emphasized that while urban dwellers are likely to see previously unimaginable changes in their day-to-day lives, "fundamentally, the power and appeal of cities will endure. This isn't the first pandemic that the world has seen."