Jennifer Keesmaat is the CEO of the Keesmaat Group and the former chief planner of Toronto. Kwame McKenzie is the CEO of the Wellesley Institute. Richard Florida is a School of Cities professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything about how we live. We know this every time we put on a mask to go outside, monitor for six feet of physical distance between ourselves and others, eschew retail for online purchases, log in to work remotely, and have conversations with friends and family over online teleconferencing, instead of in person. We know this because we have seen the social divide widen, and there are increasing numbers of people who can’t make ends meet, have lost income or don’t have access to the internet.
In a way, though, it has also changed nothing. What feels urgent now is just a more keenly felt version of what modern urban societies had already been drawn to: we want affordable housing, more proximate workplaces, walkable streets with large sidewalks, neighbourly and inclusive communities, high-quality transit options and lively, accessible retail. These are quality-of-life issues, plain and simple – before, during and after this pandemic.
So while the crisis overturns our routines and highlights what’s most important to us, it also provides a potentially once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to accelerate the change we require in Canadian cities. Governments at the federal, provincial and municipal levels are collectively working to figure out how best to navigate this new world once lockdowns ease, and to examine the societal problems that have been exacerbated by the pandemic or helped get us here in the first place. The will is there – if we summon and focus it – to position Canadian cities as global leaders in defining what, exactly, the “new normal” for societies and economies will be, moving ahead. And since more than 80 per cent of Canadians live in urban areas, the way toward a new, fairer, greener, cleaner, decarbonized Canadian economy begins with our cities – by undoing a half-century of unsustainable planning that has undermined our social cohesion and compromised our health, access to housing, the quality of our air and our cities’ long-term financial viability.
That’s why we, alongside business and real estate leaders, urban planners, not-for-profit sector leaders, academics, and current and former politicians, have signed onto the 20 measures outlined in the 2020 Declaration for Resilience in Canadian Cities. That manifesto provides a road map for how Canadian cities can immediately chart a future that is more affordable, sustainable and equitable, building on the thought leadership that has been produced around envisioning the world we’ll have when lockdowns are lifted and economic activity returns, and putting forward a specific,detailed course for immediate action in our cities. Among the proposed measures: permitting appropriately scaled multitenant housing, co-housing, laneway housing and other gentle density to flourish; accelerating the decarbonization of our transportation systems by transforming existing roadways for safe, active transportation such as walking and biking; and embracing sustainability in our built and natural environments, by enacting funded, detailed plans to achieve a 40-per-cent urban tree canopy in Canadian cities.
In other jurisdictions, we have seen announcements for bold measures to correct the planning mistakes of the past to chart this more resilient future. Paris, in particular, has emerged as an early global leader, with its plan to create 650 kilometres of new bike lanes, building on Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s precrisis agenda around remodelling the city such that Parisians’ needs can all be met within 15 minutes of their own homes. In Milan, hard-hit by the pandemic, its “Strada Aperte” plan promises to prioritize pedestrians and cyclists, and reduce car usage by repurposing 35 kilometres of roads this summer.
While COVID-19 is a nearer-term concern, it must not mask the urgency of the climate change fight – especially since the two are linked. Last month, the Global Carbon Project and the journal Carbon Brief estimated historic declines in the volume of expected worldwide carbon output this year as people stay at home, and we’ve already seen that impact in our air quality. That’s an important battleground in the fight we’re waging against this respiratory disease; studies have suggested that coronavirus patients who live in more polluted areas are faring worse than those who live in areas with cleaner air, which only puts a fine point on the need to aggressively reduce carbon emissions. And yet, while more than 490 Canadian municipalities have declared a climate emergency in recent years, 75 per cent of new housing in Canada over the past decade has been built as sprawl.
The pandemic has also intensified many longstanding systemic and structural inequities built into Canadian cities, many of which are reinforced by how we design and plan roads, public space and land, and how municipal budgets are allocated. Our current urban form has detrimental effects on new Canadians, Indigenous people, racialized populations and lower-income workers – groups that have disproportionately suffered from the effects of homelessness and gentrification, growing racial- and class-based segregation of neighbourhoods within cities, and disproportionate rates of working poverty in Canadian cities. To be clear, the measures outlined in the declaration should only be considered a starting point for the type of change we need in our cities; they are not a cure-all. But to ensure the structural trends afflicting our cities are not exacerbated or ignored, an equity lens will be critical in the planning and implementation of these measures.
Canadian municipalities have it in their power, today, to improve their transportation networks. It is within their power to change their land-use policies, and allocate more space for parks and sidewalks. It is within their authority to require that future real estate developers deliver to a higher standard, and they have the ability to reprioritize their municipal budgets to make our cities safer, healthier, fairer and more resilient. Couldn’t this crisis present an opportunity to break with our stick-in-the-mud past and set ourselves up to end our addiction to sprawl and cars, pursue rather than compromise our sustainability goals, and stop perpetuating such inequities?
The elephant in the room, of course, is that the pandemic has thrown municipal governments into a period of unprecedented financial uncertainty, amid massive budget shortfalls and staff layoffs. Canadian cities will need new, sustainable sources of revenue to fund transit networks that meet the transportation needs of our communities and support vibrant businesses on main streets; this was true before the pandemic, and it is even more so now. And cities will want to return to normal, despite the natural instinct to create jobs and funnel money into investments that will only perpetuate, or even harden, the old way of doing things.
But while some of the measures in the declaration will require a response from, and co-ordination with, provincial and federal governments for funding, the majority of the recommendations simply require a reallocation of resources and a reassessment of priorities – away from unsustainable, inequitable, costly approaches that are not viable over the long term, and toward sustainable, cost-efficient, future-oriented approaches. In each instance, the required policy changes can be initiated immediately by municipalities, though implementation periods will vary.
Given that the focus of this postpandemic declaration is on Canadian cities, it is also imperative that we confront and reject the notion that dense, urban environments – and in particular, public transit use – are driving factors of COVID-19, despite a lack of compelling evidence to support such views. Past public health crises have spurred re-evaluations of our status quo and improvements to the design of cities, and there is much work to be done to ensure Canadian cities are planning for and promoting “smart” density – that is, complete communities that are walkable, sustainable, equitable and affordable.
We cannot return to the old normal. This declaration should be considered a starting point: a series of clear and distinct actions Canadian municipalities can take right now to address the sustainability, mobility and equity issues the pandemic has laid bare.
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