I have always been enamored by the built environment. I studied Architecture and Urbanization at University. I have always felt that architecture is the highest expression of art — art in which humans get to learn, play, work, and live. Office buildings, condominiums, houses, roads, public transit, and shared spaces all form and define our cities.
According to the UN,
Today, 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to increase to 68% by 2050. Projections show that urbanization, the gradual shift in residence of the human population from rural to urban areas, combined with the overall growth of the world’s population could add another 2.5 billion people to urban areas by 2050, with close to 90% of this increase taking place in Asia and Africa, according to a new United Nations data set launched today.
However, this forecast was BCE. That is, ‘Before Covid Era.’
What if a little virus wreaked havoc on the world for an extended period of time, pausing travel, business operations, consumerism, and our entire way of life as we know it? What would it mean to the future of our cities? Would we rethink, reimagine, and redesign the places in which we live to make them cleaner, safer, healthier for all?
The Great Pause is a moment in time that is truly rare. We may not realize it at this very moment because we are living history. Fast forward one hundred years, what will the history books say about our time? I imagine words like ‘resurgence,’ ‘rebirth,’ and ‘reinvention’ will be used. Now is the perfect time to rethink many things about our society and way of life, including our cities.
I have the utmost respect for the former City of Toronto Chief Planner, and now CEO of Keesmaat Group, Jennifer Keesmaat. She is a breath of fresh air in contrast to many City Officials and Planners, who are often more about capitalizing on selling land to condo developers for top dollar than they are about designing and building well-planned cities that are built for people — including pedestrians, bikers, runners, drivers, and public transit commuters — to enjoy and thrive in. While the world’s economy has slowed significantly, and the pandemic is making us rethink some of the ways in how we live, now is the perfect time for city planners to reimagine and redesign our cities for the better.
In addition to recently launching Markee Developments — focused on building affordable housing in Canada — Keesmaat has also been leading the charge on a 2020 Declaration for Resilience in Canadian Cities. She is pushing for our cities to change for the better:
Over the past several weeks, momentum has been building. It has led to a rallying cry, a movement of Canadians from coast to coast who know that our cities must change, and who see that our post COVID-19 recovery presents us with a window to act.
This Declaration is that cry for change. It is rooted in concrete actions that will kickstart our journey toward more accessible, equitable, sustainable, and resilient cities. Across Canada, we have the passion and the expertise to deliver on this change.
I would like to thank the signatories below for their time, effort, and willingness to put their names on the line. The richness of the declaration is the reflection of much consideration, debate, and review. Today, it stands as a marker.
If not now, when?
— Jennifer Keesmaat
Meanwhile, in Medellín, Columbia, since 2016, the city has been creating what they call ‘Corredores Verdes.’ These are massive, green corridors interconnecting parks and green spaces that serve multiple purposes:
This ambitious initiative adds to and further connects existing green spaces, improves urban biodiversity, reduces the city’s urban heat island effect, soaks up air pollutants, and sequesters a significant amount of carbon dioxide. The Green Corridors project demonstrates how integrated, nature-based policies like widespread urban tree planting can have a far-reaching impact on the local and global environment, as well as significantly improving citizens’ lives and well-being.
Humans beings are meant to connect with nature in order to stay happy and healthy, and the city of Medellín is working hard to ensure that happens. Medellín can serve as an inspiration, and wake-up, to many other cities around the world that need to integrate more greenspace into their plans for their residents to enjoy.
When it comes to CBD’s (Central Business Districts), as retail businesses go bankrupt and shudder, downtown cores will see more space become available. What should be done with the vacant space? This will certainly create more opportunities for new small businesses to establish. Sara Doelger, principal at Argosy Real Estate Partners in Wayne, Pennsylvania, and chair of the Urban Land Institute’s Commercial and Retail Development Council, says,
The immediate impact will increase building vacancies and put downward pressure on rents. This may give tenants more power in lease negotiations.
Retail is no longer solely focused on the purchase transaction (although that is the end goal) and more focused on providing the shopper with a memorable customer experience that leaves them with a positive brand impression. Generally speaking, many of the retailers that we will close during COVID, are the ones focused solely on sales and less so about offering an experience. This pandemic is forcing shoppers to ask themselves, ‘If I can buy this item online, without any risk, why wouldn’t I?’
BCE (Before Covid Era), the average commute time in North America was 27 minutes one-way, or 4.5 hours per week, based on a standard five-day workweek. Not surprisingly for anyone living in Toronto (I did for 20 years), a 2018 UK study found that Torontonians actually have the longest commute of any city in North America. City politicians will blame the lack of TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) funding, while many blame the lack of vision and poor city planning of public transit.
And now, amidst this pandemic, with huge populations being mandated to work from home, commuting times have been drastically reduced and congestion levels have plummeted in cities around the world. Less time commuting in a car, or on a bus or train, means more time back in people’s day. Someone who has a busy work schedule can use that time to include more working hours in their day. People who love to run may actually have time to go for a run in the morning before they start work. Parents can spend more quality time with their children. Less time commuting is not necessarily a bad thing for many.
Fewer cars on the road mean a lot less of a lot of things. Less traffic. Less pollution. Less accidents. Less accidental deaths. This also gives us more space for pedestrians to enjoy the city. More community gardens, more parks, more room for pedestrians, and more outdoor dining, as embraced by the City of Vancouver.
At its most extreme, a pandemic at the scale of COVID-19 could mean the death of the traditional city as we know it. With people being forced to work from home, it could mean that everyone just works from home for eternity. Many of us know that this will not be the case. Human beings require physical interaction and communciation. A simple business handshake, or a long embrace with a loved one. These are the things that make us human. Our cities provide us with many opportunities for these physical interactions to take place. And they will be needed more than ever once we come out the other side of this trying pandemic.
The future of our cities rests in our hands.
Let’s build something great together.