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Shoppers and commuters are photographed at the intersection of Dundas St. and Yonge St. on Jan 8 2020. Physically distancing on Yonge Street’s narrow sidewalks is impossible, yet the city refuses to take away space from cars and hand it over, even temporarily, to pedestrians.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

In Vancouver, in response to the need for physical distancing, an idea is growing to allow restaurants to expand their patios onto sidewalks and streets. In Oakland, Calif., more than a hundred kilometres of roads have been turned over to pedestrians.

And in Toronto? Barricades surround High Park.

Flocking to the city’s largest park, during the few days when cherry blossoms burst into bloom, is a rite of spring for many in Toronto. This year, civic officials feared there would be too many visitors to allow for adequate physical distancing. It wasn’t an unreasonable worry, but rather than limiting the number of visitors or fencing off some areas, the entire park was shuttered. Emergency fences and patrolling police arrived late last week.

Through the pandemic, Toronto has been an outlier in its steadfast refusal to open up more space for people to safely spend time outdoors. Physically distancing on Yonge Street’s narrow sidewalks is impossible, yet the city refuses to take away space from cars and hand it over, even temporarily, to pedestrians. Barricading High Park is emblematic of this way of thinking.

That has to change, and fast.

Physical distancing will be part of our lives for months, and possibly far longer. Telling people to never go out makes no sense, and won’t work. Instead, we need to think about how to make more space for walkers, joggers and cyclists.

Canadian cities were built to move cars around as quickly as possible. Room for people has long been secondary. Before the pandemic, the logic of city planning was upside down. Getting from A to B had become, by design, more important than living life at A or B.

That used to make city life less pleasant. Now, it also makes it less safe.

As spring turns into summer, Canadians need to get outside. In suburbia, it’s not hard to do that while maintaining your distance. In urban areas, however, it’s often difficult to impossible. Protecting public health means creating space for city-dwellers to get outside.

The easiest and cheapest way to make room for people is to repurpose some of the space dedicated to cars. There’s a lot of it.

Oakland’s Slow Streets plan is one model. Some 10 per cent of all roads in the Bay Area city have been closed to cars. The logistics are simple, consisting of little more than a sign that says a road is closed to through traffic. Three-quarters of Oaklanders support the project.

Vancouver took small steps early on. Stanley Park was closed to cars, but the roadway remained open to bikes and the park’s seawall was reserved for walkers. It was a success. Next week, city council is set to support the drawing up of new rules to allow for more patios.

It looks like a great idea to improve life in the denser and less car-based parts of a city, even in the absence of a pandemic. It could also enable many restaurants to avoid going bankrupt, by giving them the extra outdoor space to safely seat customers.

It’s the kind of creative thinking that will allow Canada to return to normal – or better than normal. Picture the much-loved sidewalk and plaza patio tables across Europe, a wonderful draw for locals and visitors alike.

Allowing more people to go outdoors does not threaten public health. The rules we all now know well still apply. Keep a physical distance of two metres. Do not congregate in groups. When those rules are followed, there is no indication the virus can spread outdoors. British Columbia Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry’s message is get outside. If you’re outside and at distance, she says the risk of falling ill from someone coughing or sneezing is “infinitesimally small.” In Toronto, however, officials have been too distrustful of citizens – and perhaps too fearful of car-loving suburban voters. The late mayor Rob Ford built a career on decrying any attempt to improve life for pedestrians, cyclists or transit as a "war on the car.”

But progress is possible, and the more crowded a place, the more pressure there is. New York City has started to open 160 kilometres of roads to pedestrians and bikes.

To unfreeze the economy and allow people some needed exercise, while at the same time preventing a second virus surge, the division of public space in our cities needs a rethink. There’s plenty of room for change.

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