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opinion

Dylan Reid is the executive editor of Spacing magazine.

When the COVID-19 pandemic confined many of us to our neighbourhoods in the spring, I took the opportunity to start documenting a phenomenon that had long fascinated me – former corner stores embedded in what are otherwise residential streets in my part of Toronto. A few clues give them away, like angled corner doors, full-width ground floor windows, no porch, and flat roofs when all the others are peaked.

When these corner stores were built, in the first decades of the 20th century, no zoning bylaws dictated how buildings in different locations could be used. Property owners were free to turn their houses into not just corner stores, but also services such as bakeries, plumbing supply shops, dry cleaners, even light manufacturers.

During the pandemic lockdown, when so many of us were restricted to our neighbourhoods because we were unemployed or working from home, these corner stores got me thinking. What if we once again allowed houses to be workplaces – not just jury-rigged home offices, but actual offices or workshops where people worked together, met clients, provided services, and unobtrusively produced and sold goods?

The sudden drop in people going to offices every day during the height of the pandemic produced some remarkable positive changes in cities around the world. Pollution levels dropped dramatically. Traffic congestion disappeared. Transit systems, once overwhelmed and crying out for expensive expansion, could suddenly meet demand. Many chronic urban problems temporarily solved themselves. Could we maintain some of those benefits postpandemic?

For most of history, the majority of people worked where they lived, either on farms or living above their workshops. We know that it still happens, such as people running a handyman business or counselling service out of their house. If a house happens to be on a main street, a business like that might be allowed, and the owner can put up a sign letting everyone know about his or her enterprise. But for the majority of houses that are on local streets, the zoning regulations introduced in the second half of the 20th century in cities across Canada mostly prohibit using homes for commercial purposes, and anyone doing so has to stay under the radar.

Maybe it’s time to let people once again proudly hang a shingle from their home. As well as saving a commute and providing services near their neighbours, this shift could help people adapt to the disruptions to employment caused in the short term by the pandemic, and in the longer term by the decline of steady jobs. Starting a business is much easier if you can save the expense of having to rent a separate working space.

Entire houses could become workplaces, too. I once met a startup entrepreneur who, fed up with the cost and instability of leasing a downtown office, bought a suburban house and used it as his company’s headquarters. His employees arrived as local residents left for work, and no one minded. For others, a nearby house might serve as a congenial shared office space while providing a better work environment than home does.

The former corner stores I documented started to become “former” after those zoning regulations began to appear. All retail and employment was banished to main streets. While the existing stores were grandfathered, time whittled them away. The loss accelerated in this century, though, when a rapid rise in the cost of housing made it more valuable to use these buildings as houses rather than as shops.

This increasing cost of housing, especially in the older parts of many Canadian cities, has led to concerns that younger people and even mid-career middle-income Canadians can no longer afford to live within a reasonable commuting distance of their workplaces, especially if they have children.

“Gentle density,” an idea popularized by Vancouver’s former chief planner Brent Toderian, has been proposed as a partial solution. The idea is to introduce additional and more affordable housing in residential areas without changing their basic house-based form, through buildings such as duplexes and triplexes, basement apartments, and backyard and laneway houses.

The neighbourhood looks much the same, but houses a greater number and variety of people. To achieve that goal, however, cities have to re-examine their zoning policies to allow a greater variety of housing types.

If we want to maintain some of the benefits of many people working in or close to home that we discovered during the lockdown, perhaps we also need to look at how zoning allows those buildings to be used. The example of the old corner stores shows us that it’s quite possible to have commercial uses in buildings that look much the same as houses.

So, in the vein of “gentle density,” let’s start thinking about “gentle mixity.” Cities could relax their zoning to allow a wider variety of uses in houses. It would be gentle, not just in the sense that building sizes would remain the same, but also that uses would be limited to those that don’t create noise or pollution. But that still leaves a lot of scope for activity. And it would apply to newer, suburban areas, too, where commutes are often more arduous and local services in walking distance are less available.

The pandemic has already shown many of us that we can adjust what we can think of as our “personal zoning.” Most of us used to separate different parts of our lives geographically – living in one part of town, but working in another – but now many of us have learned our lives don’t have to be divided this way. Even before the pandemic, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo was envisioning the “15-minute city,” where people can live, work, shop and play within a 15-minute walk or bike ride. To achieve that goal, we need more options for working where we live.

In a discussion about former corner stores, historical geographer Mark Fram argues that sometimes the past is a better guide to the future than the present is. Those eccentric old stores can inspire us to the possibility of living a full life within our neighbourhood. We just need our cities to change their rules to make it possible.

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