Contemporary city planning, as we know it, was born out of a necessity to address communicable diseases.
Conditions in cities more than 100 years ago were the breeding grounds for infectious diseases such as cholera and yellow fever, according to Dr. Karen Lee, an expert in built environment and social determinants of health and a former adviser to former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.
In Lower Manhattan, overcrowding and inadequate systems for garbage and sewage led to polluted water infrastructure. As cholera was discovered to be transmitted through human feces and ingested through drinking water, New York officials turned their attention to the development of sanitation systems, which launched a global rethink of the design and redesign of cities, infrastructure and architecture to manage and minimize the risk of infectious disease.
New York invested in an aqueduct to bring fresh water from Westchester, a park (now popularized and known as Central Park) thought of as "ventilation for the working man’s lungs," a department focused on sanitation and a subway to connect communities. In addition, New York banned the construction of dark, airless residential buildings and adopted a zoning code that mandated appropriate building setbacks to ensure light and air met the street — to prevent the spread of cholera, according to Lee.
Today, the world is faced with a similar obstacle.
COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March, with cases increasing exponentially throughout many major cities. To reduce the chances of community spread of coronavirus, many municipalities began to adopt social distancing — recommending that people make a conscious effort to keep at least two metres between one another. It’s a measure "proven to be one of the most effective ways to reduce the spread of illness during an outbreak," according to the federal government.
To align with social-distancing recommendations, many Canadian cities have closed often-crowded places, such as recreation centres and public facilities, urged cancellation of non-essential gatherings, restricted those that do take place to a maximum of 10 people and introduced protocols enabling employees to work from home.
Provincial governments mandated the closure of schools and limited public access to essential services, including grocery stores and pharmacies. Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief medical officer, has since called for a change in language, from "social distancing" to "physical distancing" — noting that while people need to keep an adequate distance from others, they should not decrease their social interactions.
Even with these physical-distancing measures in effect, people around the globe are finding ways to connect.
Some are taking to their balconies and rooftops to participate in operatic singalongs, reminding us of our love for the arts. Others can be heard applauding in unison near hospitals at a pre-arranged time to show gratitude to health-care workers. Many residents are installing various forms of art in their windows to buoy the spirits of others out for a stroll. A hotel turned on some of its room lights to form the shape of a heart on its facade. Across the country, community groups are facilitating connections between neighbours stuck indoors with those willing to check in regularly with them, drop off groceries or run other errands.
Planners, too, are adding their voices to the discussion, advocating for wider sidewalks and the closure of streets to ensure appropriate distancing. How can we physically distance ourselves when the sidewalks are too narrow, and if there are too few open spaces to linger?
Placemaking, a tactic employed by city builders to develop both temporary and permanent public spaces that encourage utilization and well-being, can be seen across urban landscapes, with cities using chalk or decals to punctuate the need for space between us. Cities are adding signage to their public spaces, encouraging their use during non-peak hours. Streets — including several in Winnipeg neighbourhoods — have been closed to vehicle traffic for part of the day to allow movement of people by foot or two wheels.
Tools such as CityWatch (citywatchcanada.ca), developed by the Canadian Urban Institute, are tracking in real time the response measures being put in place by municipalities, while CityShare (citysharecanada.ca) presents crowdsourced stories about how city builders are responding to the pandemic.
Preliminary discussions with city builders across the nation have raised concerns about COVID-19’s impact on vulnerable populations; people living in homeless shelters, for example, are limited in how much physical distancing — if any — they can do.
Planners are concerned anxieties and fears about virus transmission might impact public perceptions of public transit. They are also worried about their ability to foster community relationships as workshops, public-engagement activities and open houses are postponed or cancelled.
What lasting effects will there be on public participation, and how can planners continue to meet the growing demand for transparency? What impacts will be felt by businesses along major commercial corridors and how will the gig economy respond and evolve as restaurants and retail rely heavily on them during worldwide lockdowns?
While city planners are uncertain about the answers to many of these questions, they view their profession as being particularly adaptive to crisis or emergency.
Planners are experts in relationship and capacity-building. We should be leveraging those connections to respond and support residents and to combat things such as social isolation. As we recover from COVID-19 and prepare for future pandemics, we will need to be explicit in our evolution in roles and responsibilities.
"Planners are system thinkers, have exceptional research skills and the ability to respond quickly and deliver prompt action," says Kim Petrin, Edmonton’s branch manager of development services.
"This is important to support pandemic response where conditions are constantly in flux. We need to think about an approach, consider the consequences and risks and then implement these actions accordingly."
Bogota, the capital city of Columbia, announced the repurposing of hundreds of kilometres of roads into temporary bike lanes and pedestrian paths — reducing demands for public transit and therefore potential for crowding, supporting physical-distancing measures and improving air quality with fewer cars on the road.
Smart Cities World said the move "represents one of the most hygienic alternatives for the prevention of the virus, especially in this first preventative stage in which it is recommended to avoid close contact and crowds."
Using Bogota as inspiration, how can other spaces be converted to support physical distancing measures now? Could on-street parking spaces be reconverted into areas for curbside meal pickup so that people can continue to support their local business of choice?
How might community gardening support neighbourhood access to fresh produce and sustenance, and what civic assets could be transitioned to support these urban agricultural endeavours? How can vacant buildings be transformed to support health-care practitioners in patient intake, or to support vulnerable populations who are at a higher risk of COVID-19 transmission?
Housing the homeless
For planners such as Colton Kirsop, director of Edmonton’s Affordable Housing and Homelessness team, support for individuals experiencing homelessness in the form of housing intervention is critical to reduce the chances of virus spread.
"Our team of planners have been offering support to homelessness agencies by identifying suitable city buildings to support COVID-19-related issues," says Kirsop.
He says the team connected with the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation, owners of Edmonton EXPO Centre, to see if the facility could serve as a safe space for homeless people. They also co-ordinated with Alberta Health Services to provide funding and operate the service.
The EXPO Centre provides drop-in service from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. throughout the week for those without access to housing. The drop-in operates in a large enough space to allow for physical distancing. This service was deemed necessary as public buildings and malls have closed, leaving little in the way of daytime shelter for the homeless.
The EXPO Centre also helps provide overflow support for facilities that have had to limit their capacity, change hours of operation or close, he adds.
People exposed to the virus or who are showing symptoms have access to a 24/7 isolation shelter at the EXPO Centre, allowing them an opportunity to recover and protect others through self-isolation. Other civic assets are being considered as temporary shelters, as the pandemic to evolves, he says.
Building a sense of community
How can city-planning efforts advance when municipalities have closed their offices? How can city builders continue to nurture a sense of community when people are indoors? For civil servants working at the City of Edmonton, the transition to a "work from home" new normal was seamless.
Petrin says development services staff were able to take their work home because much of what they do went online years ago.
"Applicants can apply for land-use changes, development and building permits, business licences, etc., all online. Information is accessible on our website or you can phone. Our teams of city builders all have access to laptops and computers to conduct their work remotely, and a shared platform to collaborate and teleconference."
In Edmonton, the implementation of open houses, workshops and public-engagement activities are being explored through digital alternatives to support public participation and connection to city services. City council meetings quickly shifted to an online platform.
While online tools are being explored for residents, businesses and community groups to engage, Andrew Misiak, an urban planner and stakeholder engagement lead working in the special projects office at the City of Vancouver, cautions planning practitioners to be careful about when they start online conversations with constituents about their projects.
"Online sentiments show that Canadians are feeling overwhelmed and are focusing on the basics like health, job security, food and facts about COVID-19. If planning departments go out too soon, they run the risk of potentially being perceived as tone deaf if they push too hard on online engagement. It will likely require a balancing act of priorities and timing, and many lessons will be learned."
Supporting local businesses
Edmonton has seen a surge in local creativity to support local businesses. A website, Things That Are Open Edmonton, is a listing of businesses that remain open, outlining whether their services can be accessed through pickup and/or delivery, their hours and their commitments to sanitization. People want information, particularly on which businesses are open and the services they can provide. In Winnipeg, the Free Press launched a similar website (wfp.to/buylocally). How might we digitize the main street, in the interim, to promote businesses and their offerings and to highlight their contributions to our cities?
Businesses are adapting and reconfiguring their operations to ensure customers can appropriately distance themselves from others, with adjustments such as takeout orders, delivery or pickup tables positioned in vestibules. How might architects consider physical-distancing measures into their practice and in their designs of commercial buildings?
Preventing the spread
A message that resonated clearly from provincial public-health officers was the need to prevent community spread, not only through physical distancing, but through personal sanitation and hygiene improvements.
Cities have and continue to grapple with public sanitation issues. For example, touch-free flushes, faucets and door-opening devices should be planned and designed for public washrooms, as well as in other public facilities, to reduce cross-contamination. Could we remove "beg" buttons at pedestrian intersections to reduce physical contact? Beg buttons are designed to help cars flow efficiently through streets, granting pedestrians the right to cross only when the buttons are pushed.
In parks and open spaces, how might infrastructure and play structures be regularly disinfected? What innovations could be imagined? In crowded places such public transit, how might surfaces be designed to prevent the spread, and what materials could be avoided? How might technological advances or mapping software help track and monitor the spread of disease locally, nationally or even globally?
Social isolation is not new
Even without a pandemic, people have and continue to live socially isolated lives. COVID-19 has only exacerbated this.
According to the World Health Organization, physical inactivity is the cause of 3.2 million global deaths per year. Planners monitor data to best understand who they are designing cities for. It was estimated that the number of people age 65 and over would grow from an estimated 524 million in 2010 to nearly 1.5 billion in 2050. Non-communicable diseases — physical inactivity, depression and obesity — pose "the greatest burden on global health," according to the WHO. Depression, for example, is estimated to affect nearly 350 million people.
To address these diseases, experts such as Lee and her work in New York have called for solutions that bind together health outcomes and urban planning.
The physical environment is one factor that contributes to health, the Canadian government says. It can be designed to "help make healthier choices easy for people through improved availability of active transportation, accessibility to healthy foods and supportive environments."
Communities might advocate for "15-minute districts" — a new urban term, now popularized through planning efforts originating out of Paris — that calls for stores, jobs, schools and recreation areas to be within walking distance from where people live.
Adjustments to sidewalks and streets to ensure convenient use should be a priority so people are able to travel with fewer barriers and to ensure that neighbourhood transitions are seamless. Changes to zoning regulations, building codes, builders’ practices and government policies can support an increase in sense of community and a decrease in social isolation, and improvements in physical activity.
How might housing facilities be redesigned to support interaction and play while indoors? While the spread of COVID-19 flattens, the crisis of social isolation will continue to persist in cities. Focusing on social isolation now might help us prepare for pandemics and their impacts in the future.
Without people, cities are ghost towns
The pandemic has shown us we often don’t know what we want or need until we lose it; public space, green space, balconies and rooftops, convenient access to groceries, amenities, and other valuable services. Arts and culture. Housing and shelter. For many, these urban features were largely accessible only to those with wealth and privilege.
When we move into recovery mode after the pandemic, will the human psyche shift in favour of city planners and their visions? The need for social connection is clear, aligning with nationally recognized planning ideals of inclusion, gathering and people-centred design.
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When life begins again and spaces and places reopen, and people linger longer on streets and sidewalks, there will be a need to be retrospective.
What dimensions of urban planning will emerge as timely and topical? What equity issues emerged during the pandemic? How did neighbourhood location play a role in access to amenities and services? How did wealth and privilege impact the ability to adequately physically distance?
How did social isolation impact people, particularly kids and their development, and those aging in place? How will we repair the vibrancy of our main streets, and support the businesses that fed, entertained and cared for us? What role do city planners play in times of emergency? How did social-distancing measures impact planning practice with respect to public engagement, public hearing and development? Were alternative measures used to support public participation?
While there are many questions left unanswered, one thing is certain: we have time now to pause and to be introspective. As we emerge through this pandemic together, remember that it is our cities and landscapes that connect and nurture us, and that we all have a responsibility to make them even more inclusive, open and supportive places for everyone.
I truly believe cities like Winnipeg are up for this challenge.
Jason Syvixay is an urban planner currently completing his PhD in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Alberta. He has worked as the managing director of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, a planner with HTFC Planning & Design, and more recently, has joined the City of Edmonton to lead and support the implementation of its Infill Roadmap.
Canadian urban issues are complex yet rarely experienced in isolation. The challenges that different cities face are often shared and present opportunities to find common ground. In this occasional series, City of Edmonton planner Jason Syvixay, a former Winnipegger, and collaborators look at how different cities approach similar issues and develop their urban landscapes. Like neighbours on a street, good things happen when cities talk to one another.