COVID-19 has changed the way we live, no question. It has changed where we frequent, the way we work, and the way we interact and engage with the world at large.
In light of the lessons we’re learning living through a pandemic, we are re-thinking the way that we design our homes, which I explored in this post How COVID-19 Will Likely Change How We Design Our Homes. Similarly, this may necessitate a change to how we approach urban planning.
I touched on this very subject in Exploring COVID-19, Urban Planning, And Toronto Real Estate where I examined the birth of the suburb and the idea of contained communities. This lifestyle concept of having everything one desires in proximity has become amplified during the lockdowns. When a large segment of the professional population began working from home online, the number of people commuting to work drastically declined. When lockdown restrictions eliminated most shopping, social, recreational, and cultural pursuits beyond purchasing essentials (most of which can be ordered online and delivered), we’ve collectively discovered which activities beyond our properties are necessary for personal well-being, and how far they’re located from where we live. We’ve also learned whether the living space we’ve been occupying can serve all the wishes, wants, and needs of our household, especially when everyone is at home 24/7 in person or online. It’s the reason the Canadian freehold housing market has boomed during the pandemic making Canadian Home Sales Set A New All-Time Record In 2020, and why the demand for condominiums have flatlined or decreased, which I wrote about in my Overview Of The 2020 Toronto Condo Market And What Lies Ahead: Part One – and – Part Two. Today, we are living in a Space Race for bigger housing, and for the more affluent, it’s a Space Race for the biggest compound. Did you read my piece on why The Demand For ‘Forever Homes’ In Toronto’s Downtown Family Neighbourhoods Persists Despite COVID-19?
While city living offers this enriched lifestyle with amenities like shopping, the arts, culture, recreation, and employment being within walking distance and minimal reliance on an automobile, the urban planning policies and high-density design principals necessary to achieve this has become problematic when it involves a pandemic, especially with COVID-19 that spreads so easily within close quarters containing a lot of people.
So how does one mitigate the risk of contagion in existing high-density areas, and what changes can be implemented to reduce it even further in future urban communities? In the world of urban planning and urban design, it starts with analyzing and reassessing where the challenges lay in all of our built environments (including the suburbs and exurbs where the risk of contagion also exists), and what solutions are available along with their associated costs, in order to re-balance the risks against the opportunity of having everything one desires within walking distance. Ultimately it’s about creating living spaces and the areas around them with intelligent design solutions that promote health and safety, while still providing convenience and benefit of urban living.
*Picture public domain. Red Cross Workers in St, Louis during the Spanish Flu (1918).
Pandemics And Urban Planning History
History tells us that there is nothing like a pandemic and a fundamental shift in lifestyle to shine the light on deficiencies in urban planning and built environments. (Here’s a ‘Visual History Of Pandemics‘) Over the centuries, in the wake of pandemics, urban planners have changed cities, infrastructure, and planning for the better.
A more recent example would be the creation of Garden Cities, which were the precursors to the modern-day suburb and were designed in a reactionary way to promote health, offering an alternative to the way many people lived during the Industrial Revolution; at the time, urban clusters were notoriously dirty, germy, and had a high incidence of crime. However, it is often a more tragic or threatening precursor – like a global pandemic – that incites changes in the way we live.
The Bubonic Plague decimated nearly a third of Europe’s population in the 14thcentury. From that experience, radical changes were made to urban design, including expanding city borders, creating quarantine facilities, and creating larger public spaces. Yellow Fever in the 18thcentury, followed by Cholera and Smallpox in the 19thcentury paved the way for wide boulevards in Paris and London, indoor plumbing and proper sewer systems, and the early designs of the suburbs. In the 20thcentury, tuberculosis, typhoid, polio, and Spanish flu all played a role in urban planning and design, with waste management, tenement reform, single-use zoning, and a prevalence of easier to clean materials in construction.
Architectural author Sam Lubell chronicles the history of pandemics and how they have changed cities in this article from the LA Times: “Commentary: Past Pandemics Changed The Design Of Cities – Six Ways COVID-19 Could Do The Same. Lubell suggests that there are a number of changes that we will see in reaction to COVID-19, including modular construction to swiftly construct emergency facilities, adaptive re-use of spaces to make them more relevant to the current need, healthy buildings (improved airflow, natural light, the inclusion of more natural materials), telecommuting and population growth in outlying areas, and a focus on building safer public spaces to support our human need for interaction while promoting health and safety.
*Looking up at apartment complexes on Hong Kong Island
The Challenges With High-Density Living
This past summer, the UN released a policy brief called COVID-19 In An Urban World. They estimate that 90 percent of all reported COVID-19 cases have been in urban areas, characterized by high density.
Quoting from the brief: “The size of their (urban areas) populations and their high level of global and local interconnectivity make them particularly vulnerable to the spread of the virus. On the other hand, there is no evidence to suggest that density per se correlates to higher virus transmission. Cities can manage this crisis and emerge as the hubs of energy, resilience, and innovation that make them such vibrant and appealing places for many to live. But this will take conscious policy choices…. COVID-19 highlights the critical role local governments play as front-line responders in crisis response, recovery and rebuilding”.
The UN looked at several cities around the world that have shifted their attitudes and around housing and public transport to address the spread of disease (like making high-density areas safer, encouraging bike and pedestrian travel, etc).
It is hoped that lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic will set the path forward for the next major evolution in the trend of urban planning – for the betterment of the physical, social and mental health of society.
Embracing Change In Urban Planning
Although change is one of our only certainties in life, responding to it through collective will and government policy is not always easy, particularly when incited by something as dangerous and tragic as a pandemic, but – what’s the saying? Times of great advancement are always preceded by times of great strife.
This article from the Globe and Mail, entitled, “Will Cities Stay Healthy, Or Will The Coronavirus Mean The End Of Density?“, talks about potential pitfalls associated with higher density urban living. Here’s a piece from the Institute For Research on Public Policy – “Concerns About The Next Pandemic Should Spark A Push For Good City Planning And Policy Rather Than A Backlash Against Density And Transit Upgrades” – which proposes that the pandemic, while tragic, is an opportunity for evolution and positive change.
Given the demographic and geographical composition of our society, doing away with high-density living isn’t really feasible – nor is it desirable. I posit – as some experts have – that the key is to create necessary space within the density.
This interesting CBC interview, “How Should Urban Design Evolve From The Pandemic? World-Renowned Architect Moshe Safdie Has Ideas“, touches on the role that high-density living (from the built environment to transportation to lifestyle amenities) creates an atmosphere where viruses can spread more easily. Complicating matters, the trend towards urban design has been to enclose most of our living spaces. Similarly, urban design has been leaning towards higher density – particularly because of affordability – but also to make the highest and best use of scarce land.
Safdie suggests that there needs to be a return to incorporating open spaces (communal and private) into high-density living situations. Shopping needs to be open-air, rather than enclosed in malls, and so on. How else can we create that necessary space within high density? How can urban planners really make the most of the opportunity to reconfigure their cities to help with health and safety – and make them sustainable?
There are several points that must be considered and some likely trends to come.
Urban Planning Trends On The Horizon
•• Complete Communities
There will most likely be a shift back towards the “complete community”- similar to what occurred in those first garden cities that were the precursor to the suburbs.
“How Canadian Cities Are Adapting To COVID-19” by Canadian Geographic talks about the design of 15-minute “complete communities “ where everything you need is within a 15-minute walk from your home, reducing the need for auto or public transit reliance. There will also be a desire to have health care facilities within walkable distance, as well as shopping, lifestyle, and cultural amenities.
•• Rethinking Space
From a development standpoint, there will likely be a greater focus on the creation of mixed-use retail-residential space. This is a movement that has already been very popular in Toronto’s urban core, to make the best use of available land.
Similarly, there may be a greater focus on the creation of flex space as well, that can be easily altered from commercial to residential – or between various commercial needs. The re-use and/or repurposing of space in reaction to emerging needs during the pandemic has been a common event. I wrote about this during the summer in my post called The Need And Demand For Live/Work Properties In Toronto.
Click here to read observations about short, medium, and long-term changes that may happen to city planning from a panel of experts in “A Global View Of Design And Urban Planning Post-COVID-19 (Part 4): How Will Cities Change?“. This article offers some great insights as well “Concerns About The Next Pandemic Should Spark A Push For Good City Planning And Policy Rather Than A Backlash Against Density And Transit Upgrades“.
Public transport and transportation infrastructure are key components of creating a vibrant and healthy urban ecosystem. However, by nature of its design, public transport presents close quarters, problematic during a pandemic.
To put this in context, pre-pandemic, the financial district in Toronto would draw about 400 000 commuters many of whom were using public transit. That is potentially a dangerous situation. Along with a growing work from home movement, this fear of exposure has led to a stark drop in public transportation use during the pandemic – not just in Toronto, but across the world as well. This article from the Toronto Star “Public Transit Is Rebounding Far More Slowly From COVID-19 Than Car Traffic, New Data Says“.
There has been a suggestion that in regards to public transportation, there must be planning and design solutions that reduce the risks of contagion throughout its system and network, including space planning, physical barriers, air filtration, and contactless technology to facilitate ride payments. While the work from home movement has very much characterized the pandemic, it is possible that with the vaccine being rolled out there will be a greater appetite for public transport as people return to the office, and urbanites embrace their love to collectively shop, eat, and engage in Toronto’s cultural and sports activities like they regularly frequented prior to our first lockdown in March 2020. But in light of lessons learned since it has to be better designed.
•• More Cycling and Pedestrian Activity
Something else that has gained substantial traction during the pandemic is the increase in cycle traffic in our urban centre. Not only is cycling good for our health and for the health of our planet, but it is also a physically-distant activity. Almost all forward-thinking urban planners at this point in time are being urged to incorporate greater access to bike lanes and pedestrian walkways as a major component of transportation infrastructures going forward.
I’ve written about the health issues surrounding commuting in my post called What Are The Real Financial, Emotional And Health Costs Of Commuting? I also talk about the growing popularity of cycling in Toronto in On Cycling In The City: Then And Now.
There will likely be an emphasis too from urban planners on creating more space within existing streets and roadways to make them more pedestrian-friendly. Check out this Globe and Mail article, “Rebirth Of The Promenade”, which looks at leveraging existing streetways to create more open space in a post-pandemic Toronto, namely on University Avenue. If there was ever a time to make this change, it’s now. In fact, it was just announced that “Paris Is Turning Champs-Élysées Into a Green Space” in order to reduce pollution and improve livability for the local population, while Barcelona’s ‘Green Zones’ is both an inspiration and a solution in this article called “Sustainable Cities After Covid-19: Are Barcelona-style Green Zones The Answer?”
Here is a real-life example: This article “How COVID-19 Could Change The Way Cities Look And Operate After The Lockdowns” touches on how roadways will change, and how existing infrastructure for cyclists in cities could be better utilized to alleviate public transit congestion, using Bogota Columbia and their recreational bike network Ciclovía as an example. Since 1974 these paths and roadways are closed to vehicular traffic to make space for cyclists and pedestrians. During the pandemic lockdown, the network was used extensively by essential workers cycling to work, reducing congestion.
And for more inspiration and proof, this article reaffirms our love to stroll in “From Glasgow To Beijing, These Are Some Of The Most Popular Pedestrianized Streets Around The World“.
•• Creating Greenspace That Works
One significant lesson learned from our lockdown was the value of green space and the necessity for having access to it close to home. Have you read my post For the Love of Trees?
The Advocacy group Park People ran a survey about the importance of parks during the pandemic earlier this spring. Some key findings of the survey include:
– 70 percent of Canadians feel that their appreciation of parks increased during COVID-19.
– 82 percent of respondents feel that parks became more important to their mental health during the pandemic. Similarly, many people feel that parks play a significant role in their social connections with others, combatting feelings of isolation.
– Some changes people would like to see in parks include more washrooms, the movement of indoor recreational activities to outdoors in parks to facilitate physical distancing, and closure of roads/streets to increase pedestrian access.
During the pandemic, not only did people use parks more – they used them in a different fashion. With playgrounds and facilities closed, the open green spaces were pursued, in part to accommodate social distancing without stress, reminding planners of the necessity of the inclusion of large multi-purpose spaces in parks going forward.
There were problems in the Spring and Summer when Toronto parks were flooded with urban dwellers seeking outdoor respite. Social media displayed packed parks on several occasions. This article called “Why Urban Planners Were Not Surprised By Toronto’s Packed Public Park” suggests that overcrowding in parks in Toronto isn’t surprising, given the high number of condo dwellers in Toronto and the disproportionate amount of green space available.
There are a few suggestions put forth by urban planners in this article, including converting some urban parking lots temporarily to green space or to have a “time zoned approach “where a cluster of buildings would have staggered access to local parks. The City of Toronto is looking proactively at park washroom facilities to make use easier and more supportive of health and safety during the coming winter months: “City Of Toronto Looks At Boosting The Number Of Park Washrooms Open In Winter To Address Pandemic Concerns“. While this insightful article from the Globe and Mail provides solutions and insight on greenspace planning, “Green Wave: How Canadian Cities Are Creating New Park Space“.
Creating quality green space in a city like Toronto could be challenging, where land is scarce, but certainly, there needs to be a priority in the creative creation of green space integrated into urban settings to help alleviate congestion and promote health and well-being for urbanites.
A Case Study – Nordhavn
Let’s look at a case study where urban planning is well underway to create complete communities that are supportive to health and safety.
Europe, in particular, Scandinavian countries have been pioneers in housing and development, in particular with sustainable development. A new, compact but comprehensive planned community in Denmark called Nordhavn is thought to be the gold standard for what healthy, sustainable living and design might look like post-pandemic in high-density locales. It’s dubbed a “5-minute city”, meaning that one theoretically would be able to reach stores, health care, work, cultural spots, green space, and public transport within a 5-minute walk from any point in the district. It sounds very similar to the premise that first shaped those Garden Cities generations ago- the idea of self-sufficiency and containment. Over the next 50 years, it is intended to add 40,000 workspaces, as well as living quarters to accommodate 40,000 inhabitants.
At the core of its design is an emphasis on mixed-use retail and housing to make the most efficient use of built spaces. These units are paired with green space, either very close by or immediately onsite. They will have an extensive transportation system including a metro and many bike paths/lanes, which will make it easier to walk, ride, or take public transit than to use your car.
The district will be built on a large, formerly industrial zone in the historic area of Copenhagen. It will be transformed into a mix of homes and offices and supporting amenities and is adjacent to the sea, surrounded by canals, water basins, and the open sea. The project was started in 2014 and will continue to be developed for decades to come.
Other distinct features of this district include an emphasis on healthy and clean public spaces, a mix of different sizes and shapes of buildings, compact development (most buildings will be between 3-6 storeys) in order to promote a community feel, proximity to the sea for vistas and for more opportunity for recreation and sport, a network of plazas, parks, walks and spaces on the street.
Click here to read about this “conception city”: “Integrated Urban Development: Copenhagen And Its Nordhavn Case“.
The Way Forward
The Globe and Mail recently ran a series on the future of urban planning and high-density living. These interesting articles are worth your consideration including:
Despite the risks of being exposed to the coronavirus in a high-density environment, city life carries immense appeal for many. As we progress through the vaccination program Canadians will become adjusted to a new normal regardless of where they live, which presumably will come from a better understanding of what and where the ‘hot spots for transmission’ are located. After all, the arrival of this global pandemic came with the idea that you might contract the virus at any time in any circumstance and, while this is true no matter where you live in the world, your chances of exposure ultimately depend on where you go and how you get there, and the conditions that exist time/day/month. Research is showing that 60% of Toronto’s outbreaks Workplace Environments have been in frontline food processing, manufacturing, and warehouse settings (and 80-90% of low wage earners have no access to paid sick live – stat from Kristyn Wong-Tam) even though what makes headlines is when a Spin Studio In Ontario Has 72-person Coronavirus Outbreak Despite Safety Measures. In other words, ‘essential workers’ have a higher risk, and while this includes many in the professions of health care and education, the lower your socioeconomic status the greater your chances of being exposed.
Health and Environmental Sciences will analyze and identify the risk factors which heighten the opportunities for exposure (the size or spatial organization of a building, its HVAC engineering, and the use or activity occurring, for example), just as it has already established where there are minimal risks (including being outdoors rather than indoors and being exposed to the virus by people rather than from food or packaging). As we understand how COVID-19 transmits, even with a vaccine precautionary measures and design solutions can be implemented to minimize the risk of transmission and infection. After all, the situation is not about eradicating the virus but creating environments that are designed and built for future mutations or new airborne viruses for a new ‘normal’.
** I am extremely grateful to all essential workers who are at greater risk than those who are not. Thankyou! **
If you’re curious to learn more about shelter in these changing times, here are some of my blogs exploring the influence of the pandemic on the housing industry, and the intersections between COVID-19 and Toronto Real Estate:
The experience of owning a home extends far beyond the walls of your residence; including its community and support infrastructure; and its accessibility to amenities that enhance your health and well-being. For those considering a purchase, the pandemic has prompted a shift in focus for many Buyers who are evaluating their next move. Now more than ever it makes good sense to engage a realtor who can guide you with a well-researched, data-driven, tactical strategy.
Considering selling? As a realtor with a comprehensive multi-disciplinary education in shelter, and 28 years of experience in the sales and marketing of Toronto real estate I can assist you in achieving Top Dollar for your property.
My team and I would love to help!
May we be of assistance to you, or someone you love?
Thanks for reading!
-Steve & The Urbaneer Team
Steven Fudge, Sales Representative
& The Innovative Urbaneer Team
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