In Canada, Montreal is the epicentre of the pandemic while the Greater Toronto Area has been hard hit as well with 62% of Ontario’s confirmed cases.
Out of necessity, these cities and cities all over the world are beginning to re-invent themselves in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis.
At the heart of this re-invention is the expansion of public space.
Why public space matters
In our large urban areas, many different kinds of people live and work within a tight physical space. This physical overlap greatly contributes to the proven ability of our cities to create wealth while at the same, bringing a diverse population together.
In practical terms, this is because public spaces found in large urban areas provide a restaurant owner, someone posting dog-walking services, or a midnight clubgoer the chance to meet anybody, with any imaginable result. The equality of access to a busy city street is at the heart of urban life. The equal and accessible public space found in cities is the most important infrastructure of all.
In our current Covid-19 related crisis, we see the absence of street life in the devastating effect of shelter-in-place orders on creative and essential small businesses. But we also feel this loss in the joylessness of life without the serendipity or chance encounters that the city street provides.
We often do not need entirely new ideas to improve our cities. But sometimes, it appears, we need a crisis. In the last few weeks, to allow for a safer, more widespread, and not incidentally more equitable access to open space, cities across the world have closed streets to cars and opened them to pedestrian and bicycle traffic. Oakland, California has been a leader, transforming 10 percent of its streets into public promenades. San Francisco, New York and others have followed. Already in Seattle, there is talk of making such changes permanent. And in Europe, all major cities are closing off streets and expanding bicycle paths and pedestrian walkways.
Online life is no substitute for real life
Another aspect of the Covid crisis is worth mentioning — the shift of public life on the streets to privately owned, online spaces such as Amazon, Facebook, Zoom and Apple’s FaceTime. In the last two months, we have been forced away from in-person interactions, and pushed into the private, online structures that even in pre-pandemic times, already controlled much of our shared existence in a negative way. We have, in effect, looked online to try to bring to our lives the qualities — surprise; chance; a loose, supportive web of friendship — that the public and private spaces (restaurants, bars, shops, etc.) of urban life normally brings us.
Yet the public spaces of the internet are socially impoverished when compared with even a simple city sidewalk. As with any shopping mall, the shared spaces of virtual life are accessible only so long as we support the commerce on which they are sustained. For online spaces such as Facebook, Google and Zoom, the price is almost always the value of their surveillance of us so that they can gather our personal data to sell to advertisers. The local controversy around the Google’s Sidewalk Labs’ data-driven “city of the future” in Toronto, which Sidewalk Labs recently pulled out of, highlights the huge stakes involved when the business of information, space and citizenship become more obviously entwined.
Expanding public space: Our municipalities need federal and provincial crisis financing now
Our urban common space is more than sidewalks, cycling lanes and parks – it includes public transit. In these times, cities such as Seattle, Los Angeles and Denver are making municipal bus travel free, to help essential workers and protect the health of drivers, since riders can enter at the back.
This spirit should also continue once the pandemic has passed. We have a blind spot in North America around seeing public transportation as something that has to compete in the market — rather than as an essential service and an economic engine that, particularly when it is cheap, clean, safe and reliable, repays investment by enabling and stimulating employment and business activity.
Just as elsewhere in our cities, the same changes in public transportation that will make it more effective and less of a platform for contagion — more frequent, dependable service that allows for safe spacing, affordable fares, etc. — will also drive the economic growth that we desperately need to recover from what is already the worst economic collapse since the great depression of the 30’s.
But public transit across Canada has taken a huge financial hit since the implementation of the economic lockdown and transit ridership across the country has cratered. This has resulted in massive financial losses for all municipal transit systems. Because municipalities in Canada can generally not run deficits, this means that the federal government and the provinces must act quickly to provide bridge financing until ridership can recover.
In Toronto, city finance staff have run the numbers and project the city will lose $305 million over a three-month lockdown and $940 million over the course of the lockdown plus a six-month recovery period. Other projections covering a 9-month and 12-month period peg the revenue drop at $2.76 billion.
Toronto Mayor John Tory said officials are scouring city government for savings but it is clear that Toronto will require significant financial assistance from the province and federal government in operational funding for at least the next two years. that is true of transit systems right across the country.
Four weeks ago, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) called on Ottawa to provide at least $10 billion to municipalities struggling with pandemic-related costs and revenue loses. FCM members include more than 2,000 municipalities of all sizes representing more than 90 percent of all Canadians.
FCM’s data shows municipalities facing a minimum of $10-15 billion in near-term, non-recoverable losses due to COVID-19. That figure includes foregone property taxes, utility charges and user fees—including an estimated $400 million each month from lost transit ridership alone. At the same time, municipalities are taking unprecedented steps to support public health and safety.
But to date, our senior levels of government have ignored the COVID-19 related crisis in municipal financing.
Our federal and provincial governments must come to the aid of Canada’s municipalities and they must do so now.
Expanding public space: Closing off streets and expanding pedestrian and cycling paths
One area of promise is that urban Canadians can expect to see a lot more pedestrian and cycling space as the country starts to emerge from lockdowns.
In Toronto, the city has begun barring non-local traffic on dozens of minor roads and on weekends will temporarily close major streets to car traffic, in what Mayor John Tory says is a “common sense” approach to allow pedestrians and cyclists to spread out during the Covid-19 crisis.
The program, which is called ActiveTO, was announced last week, but details of the plan were revealed at the city’s daily pandemic news conference last Thursday afternoon.
The program will create more than 57 kilometres of “quiet streets” where traffic calming measures like signage and temporary barricades will be erected to encourage drivers to slow down and create a roadway that “welcomes people who walk, run and bike.” Only local traffic will be permitted on the affected roadways.
About 10 kilometres of major roads next to busy multi-use trails were also closed to car traffic in Toronto on a trial basis starting this Victoria Day weekend.
Expanding public space: More room for restaurant and bar patios
Cities including Winnipeg, Calgary, Toronto and Vancouver have brought in, or are eyeing rules, that would make it easier for restaurants to expand into public spaces such as roads and parking areas, creating outdoor seating roomy enough that patrons can maintain physical distancing.
The move comes amid dire warnings that the restaurant industry is facing an existential crisis and follows the lead of Europe and the United States, where many cities have been quick to allow these businesses more flexibility.
The difficulty of running a restaurant while keeping customers distanced has been clear since the initial months of the pandemic.
Now, with more known about the virus, two-metre gaps are required by many cities that have begun to reopen. But such distancing demands a large number of empty seats, which threatens to wreak havoc on already precarious restaurant finances.
“If conditions don’t improve over the next few months, one out of every two independent restaurants do not expect to survive,” Shanna Munro, chief executive officer of the industry association Restaurants Canada, warned in an open letter last week, calling this “by far the worst crisis” her organization had seen.
Winnipeg was the first Canadian city to allow this sort of flexibility, announcing a cheaper and quicker patio policy several weeks ago, with temporary licences in effect through this month. According to city data, 16 patios had been approved as of Monday.
Kate Fenske, CEO of the Downtown Winnipeg Business Improvement Zone, said most of the new patios are at suburban restaurants, which have more room into which to expand. Her group is working to find opportunities in the core as well.
“We’re trying to figure out, ‘How do we make this work for all of downtown?’” she said. “You know, Winnipeggers, we love our patios. We get through the long winter and as soon as it’s sunny and above zero we start thinking about it.”
On Monday, Calgary city council voted unanimously to make it easier for restaurants and other businesses to spill out their doors and onto sidewalks and roads once the province’s pandemic rules are relaxed, provided public access is maintained.
“The response from [city staff] is they’re going to say yes unless there’s a really good reason not to,” said Councillor Druh Farrell, adding that Calgary will no longer be charging for foregone parking revenue, a rule that had previously made such pop-ups quite expensive.
Vancouver is also eyeing more flexible outdoor dining. A spokesperson said that the city had a pre-pandemic pilot project that allowed restaurants to occupy some roads and said staff were looking at expanding this approach. More details are expected this week.
In Toronto, Mayor Tory revealed on Wednesday that he is now looking at restaurants being able to expand their outdoor seating.
In an interview with CP24, Tory stated that the initiative is offering patrons a chance to return to their favourite eateries while still respecting social distancing bylaws.
The move will allow outdoor eating options to expand at some local restaurants, hopefully turning Toronto into a giant patio for the season.
“I think not only could it provide us with a source of more enjoyment this summer, after all, we have been through this winter and spring but also I think that it could be a lifeline for some of the restaurants, especially in light of the fact that they will probably be required to have tables further apart inside and outside,” he stated.
“So, I have asked the staff to come back to me with some possible locations, and I expect we will have some news on that fairly soon,” he added.
Equal, accessible and lively public space can promote civic health during a pandemic. Over the long term, expanding our public spaces will create wealth and promote the health, welfare and equality of all Canadians for decades to come. For in the end, urban resilience is not purely a physical, nor a social, nor an economic goal. It is one, like well-made streets, sidewalks, parks and public transit, that should connect every part of public life and benefit all.