The sunny side of Covid

September 08, 2020

The Danforth was busier than usual that Friday night as I cycled home after a social-distancing comedy show in Bickford Park. But not for the usual reasons. It was peppered with city workers, unloading dozens of planters from towering trucks and lining them along freshly-painted bicycle lanes. This was the moment I had dreamed of for years. 

Over the past six months, we’ve been inundated with story after story about the devastating effects of Covid-19. But there’s a silver lining that’s received far too little airplay. As Urban Planner Jennifer Keesmaat sees it, “Because of Covid, people have started to fundamentally experience their lives differently. They’ve seen proof that we can make our cities more livable and have a higher quality of life.” 

Jennifer is passionate about creating spaces where people can flourish, so her focus naturally falls toward city planning strategies that benefit all of its citizens — not merely a segment of them — as well as the landscape they inhabit. The cynic in most of us will believe that’s just not possible — that there are limits to what we can do. But the kind of industrious thinking that was essential to weathering the Covid storm has proven otherwise. The winds are changing.

Admittedly, I was in the oh-man-we’re-screwed camp until I had a conversation with Jennifer that opened me to the hope that lay waiting for us, if only we would believe it possible. Here’s a taste of our talk. 

LC:  In what ways has Covid shifted how we think about city spaces?

JK:  Reimagining city spaces requires a shift in mindset about how we can adapt existing space. We need to think differently about space and cities. During Covid, there is a need for more public space combined with a shift in mobility options. How do you create that? There are great examples across the globe that provide clues – in Milan, Paris, London and New York.

For example, in most cities, 25% of the land area is dedicated to roadway. Cities like Montreal have successfully transitioned that land for dining, cycling and walking in a very short period of time. Today, Montreal has the highest per capita number of cyclists in Canada. Here in Toronto, data on bike-share programs show that ridership has increased every winter over the past couple of years. This demonstrates that when you build safe cycling infrastructure, clear them year-round, and provide access to bikes, people will continue to use them all year round. So I would argue that we have been in a process of shifting how we use space in cities for quite some time – really, this is just accelerating as a result of our shifting needs in a Covid-19 world.

LC:  How will city infrastructures change long term?

JK:  We should expect significant changes. We are already more sensitive to issues of space and hygiene than we have been in the past. Park space is now recognized as essential to our health, as opposed to frivolous.  While transit is now recognized more than ever as an essential service, our tolerance for tightly packed buses and subway cars has changed.  The good news is that technology will help us improve transit, whether for managing the flow of people, or addressing the risk of contagion. For instance, the London Tube has developed a disinfectant that can be sprayed on surfaces and lasts for up to 30 days. Operators do not want an outbreak associated with their service; they are already being proactive installing advanced air ventilation systems and ramping up sanitation procedures. New protocols are also likely to be put in place by government. 

LC:  Covid has impacted the work force in different ways. What are some of the things that keep you up at night?

JK:  I think about how the work force will change going forward. For example, 50% of the jobs lost under Covid are not anticipated to come back. Companies that have scaled back, or slowed growth, may stay smaller to avert loss. 

In addition, the blurring of work and home was already increasing because of technology, and Covid has heightened that trend. While working from home is an opportunity for many, for some it presents new challenges. Women in particular are juggling increased child and eldercare demands. On average, women still earn less than men, so we’ve seen that they have dropped out of the workforce at a much higher rate than men. Furthermore, the majority of job losses have taken place in female-dominated industries. In July, RBC Economics reported that we’ve lost 30 years of progress for women in the work force, just over the course of a few months. In April, women’s participation in the workforce dipped to 55% for the first time since the mid 80s. Fundamentally rethinking childcare and access to schooling during the pandemic has taken on a real urgency in light of this data. 

LC:  How has Covid affected housing in Canada, and what measures do we need to take on this front? 

JK:  If you had a long commute prior to the pandemic, and you were lucky enough to keep your job and work from home, you probably found over the last few months that you had more time than ever for recreation. We shouldn’t have to go back to a world of the long commute, and how we plan and design housing is critical to delivering on this new possibility. 

This will affect trends in real estate. Many people will exercise choices they never had before, in terms of where they will choose to live. Inevitably, this will put pressure on cities to offer more in terms of quality of life, focussing on culture, cycle-ability, access to nature and clean air. Cities have good resources when a crisis hits, such as hospitals and public health agencies, and that may factor into decision making about where to live in the future. 

It is already clear that housing affordability will continue to be an issue across the entire country – in large and small places. Access to safe, stable, quality affordable rental housing is needed, and I fully expect that we will see new designs and new delivery models emerge in the coming weeks and months. 

LC:  Do the changes we’re seeing have a shelf life? Will we eventually revert to the way that things were pre-Covid?

JK:  Three recent conversations I’ve had tell me that’s an unlikely scenario. In the first, I spoke with a GTA Mayor who has the budget for expanding, but wants to offer staff opportunities to work from home so they don’t need to build a new facility for them. Many companies feel the same. There’s a strong financial impetus for keeping things this way. It’s a win-win situation.

Another source is a colleague who is a partner in an investment firm. Two months into the pandemic, he was impressed to discover that his team was just as productive working from home as they were working from the office. During this time, he polled staff who were still paying for parking spaces to see how many of them wanted to go back full time. He’d let go of his own spot and advised his team to do the same if they preferred to work from home in the future. Most of them followed suit, releasing their parking spaces on the assumption that working from home was to become the norm, rather than the exception. 

Lastly, a colleague who is a lawyer in the public sector explained that while all files were confidential and inaccessible off site prior to the pandemic, their entire operation has been retooled so all employees can now work from home. Many work places have now made an investment in equipment and processes – investments that they will want to capitalize on moving forward, rather than going back to the way things once were. So these changes are here to stay, and will continue to evolve. 

LC:  What is a must-have feature of your dream city?

JK:  As a foundation, great cities are places that have a mix of housing types, for all people, at all stages of their lives. We can deliver this, if we really focus on access to housing and increasing rental supply moving forward. This is critical to social cohesion, but also economic development and opportunity. 

But do you want a fun feature of my dream city? That would be scooters. They complement walkable, urban neighborhoods brilliantly.  When I was in Lyon, France in 2017 I was a bit surprised to see people in business attire zipping around from meeting to meeting on scooters. Scooters were clearly a foundation of public transportation. In my dream city, we’d have dedicated scooter corridors as the backbone to urban mobility. Just imagine how much fun we would have!

I’m all in for your Scooter City, Jennifer! As long as you line those dedicated corridors with some pretty, Danforth-style planters.

Lucy Conte,
Content Manager, T.E. Wealth  

Jennifer Keesmaat is the CEO of the Keesmaat Group, and works with cities and political leaders across the Globe on advancing transformative change in cities. She is also the Former Chief Planner at the City of Toronto, and is a Distinguished Visitor in Planning Emeritus at the University of Toronto.

This article was published in Leon Frazer & Associates Strategies newsletter, September 2020 edition. Read the full edition here.