Pedestrian-friendly Cities are Making a Comeback as Pandemic Reframes Daily Life

15-minute cities and COVID-19:
‘Pushing us to do the things we needed to do anyway’

By NINA DRAGICEVIC

Amid a global pandemic, we find ourselves rethinking how to live. And some of the answers, experts say, have been around for a long time.

Re-evaluating how we work, how we move around, and how we can be healthy and happy together, the “15-minute city” is topping headlines again. It’s a community where people work, shop, learn and play within a 15-minute walk or bike ride.

In July, an international network of 96 megacities released a report about the COVID-19 pandemic recovery — one key recommendation: the 15-minute city as an economy-booster.

The month before, Anne Hidalgo was reelected mayor of Paris with the 15-minute city as a key component of her campaign. Last year, pre-pandemic, Ottawa had promised the same.

An August editorial in The Globe and Mail pointed out: “The branding is new; the ideas are not.”

“It’s pushing us to do the things we needed to do anyway to move to a more viable, more sustainable version of the economy,” says Ken Greenberg, urban designer, author and advocate with a four-decade career across North America and Europe.

“I’ve rarely seen a concept that’s gained so much interest in so many places,” he says, “because it just makes so much sense.”

FROM BRAMPTON TO BURNABY MOUNTAIN 

Patio’s adorn the streets of Greektown on Danforth Ave. Photo by Michael Somoza

Greenberg’s recent article “Is COVID-19 The Accelerator For Walkable Neighbourhoods?” traces the “profound paradigm shift” away from car-based communities and back to people.

In the post, Greenberg describes his involvement in such a planning project: a 20-minute community in Brampton, ON. Population-wise, Brampton is already a Top 10 city in Canada: “the fastest growing, the youngest and most diverse.”

Amid a global health crisis, has Brampton second-guessed its push to increase density, prioritize transit, and get people out of cars?

Absolutely not, Greenberg says: “We’re still going at breakneck speed.”

In fact, the pandemic has accelerated an original part of the transition plan to revitalize businesses close to the core — give car space to pedestrians.

“[We’re working on] a whole activation of downtown, starting very shortly, to do pretty much the same as what’s happening in downtown Toronto and cities around the world,” Greenberg says. “We’re giving businesses the opportunity to use additional street space, laneways, courtyards and parking lots to get things going.”

UniverCity, a fascinating community on Burnaby Mountain, B.C., sounds like a utopia — it’s won dozens of awards in almost every area, including design, development, sustainability, affordability, innovation and newsmaker of the year.

Originally conceived decades ago, Simon Fraser University set aside some 65 hectares to build a dense, mixed use, market-driven community. Its aim was even more ambitious: All residents should live 10 minutes from a town centre.

 “These 15-minute cities; they are strong principles that have been around for a long time, and they haven’t left for a reason.” 

— Dale Mikkelsen, vice president of development for Simon Fraser University Community Trust.

“It was all developed before it was called ‘sustainability,’ it was just good urban planning,” says Dale Mikkelsen, vice president of development for Simon Fraser University Community Trust.

Today, UniverCity approaches its final phase: a projected end population of 8,000 to 10,000 residents, and up to 200,000 square feet of retail, commercial and office space. Pandemic or not, Mikkelsen says such a tight-knit community builds social and economic resilience.

“The pandemic’s been hard for everybody, but there’s a relationship with the community and the commercial retail landlords that is more about how we support each other and get through this,” Mikkelsen says. “It feels like there’s less desperation.”

Mikkelsen recently passed through downtown Vancouver’s central business district, an area dense with offices and retail — but few homes. The business district feels hollow now, he says, but walkable communities in surrounding areas still bustle with activity.

“These 15-minute cities; they are strong principles that have been around for a long time, and they haven’t left for a reason,” Mikkelsen says.

“Local businesses in these 15-minute communities are relying on those people that are home. And during this pandemic, where have people been?”

NEW PATIOS DRAW PEDESTRIANS IN TORONTO 

In Toronto’s uber-walkable Liberty Village, Big Rock Brewery used a stretch of grass along the edge of its store to build a makeshift patio.

The brewery put together leftover shipping pallets as an impromptu fence, painted it black and decorated it with a string of coloured flags. Five large picnic tables offer seating for up to 30 guests.

“Before, it was just burnt grass,” says Oliver Wheller, sales and marketing rep with the national brewer; after weeks of heat waves, many patches of grass in the city had turned crisp and yellow.

Most evenings and weekends, this new patio is packed, Wheller says. But daytime traffic remains low, as many nearby offices have cleared out while everyone works from home. Visitors and tourists are also down since the BMO Field — formerly hosting sports and concerts — sits empty.

But after finishing their workdays from home offices, locals grab a beer from Big Rock’s store and fill these tables to drink, converse, and snack on small bites served by a partnered kitchen. When Wheller invited a friend to join him on this new patio, he found they couldn’t even find a place to sit.

For now, it’s an opportunity for a brewery to allow customers to sit outside and enjoy its craft beer. Wheller admits there’s no plan for when the weather cools.

“We’ll have to shake it up in the winter,” Wheller says. “If anything, maybe we’ll do beer tastings.”

Will customers feel comfortable drinking indoors? Will nearby offices fill up again?

“No one knows for sure,” he says. “We’ll see.”

ENVISIONING A CITY THAT CONNECTS EVERYONE

Building pedestrian- and transit-focused neighbourhoods offer an opportunity to make them more inclusive, more accessible to diverse groups.

“I would say that people of my generation, they care about the environment, they care about social inequality, and we understand that a car-dominant society is counter to those goals.”

— Cheryll Case, founder of CP Planning, a firm that takes a “human-rights approach” to community planning.

Photo by Brianna Roye  

The primary tool? Engagement and relationship-building, says Cheryll Case, founder of CP Planning, a firm that takes a “human-rights approach” to community planning.

“To enable communities to be as diverse as they can be, essentially reducing barriers to entry, planners have to engage members of those communities as early as possible in the conversation,” Case says.

“That is really critical, allowing these people to be open about what their interests are, and not narrow the scope to what they see as required design.”

In her mid-20s, Case is on the cusp between millennial and Gen Z, and she says her peers have different priorities from generations that preceded them.

“I would say that people of my generation, they care about the environment, they care about social inequality,” she says, “and we understand that a car-dominant society is counter to those goals.”

With less commuter traffic coming in every day, Toronto gave more space to people and bikes. Businesses expanded patios onto sidewalks and lots, bike lanes popped up, and road closures transformed some of the most iconic routes in the city. One staggering figure: Some 40,000 cyclists and pedestrians showed up on a single Saturday in May.

Expanded patio and bike lanes on the Danforth to help restaurants with social distancing and allow more pedestrian traffic. Photo by Michael Somoza

Gil Penalosa, international consultant and founder of 8 80 Cities, loved the idea of closing major roads in Toronto, but noted these routes were primarily in high-income areas. He wants to see a city that connects everyone.

“Why not connect to priority neighbourhoods where low-income people live?” he says. “That would be magnificent. We need to focus on equity, and we’re not doing it.”

With a lengthy pandemic recovery ahead, Penalosa says the time for change is now.

“We’ve seen the fewest cars [on the road] in 50 years,” he says. “The last time we had this few cars on the road was in the 1970s, when there was an oil crisis.

“In that sense, what I think is good is that people are open to change. People realize that we need to do things differently.”

Saint Denis Street in Montreal closed to vehicle traffic to allow for social distancing, art exhibits and restaurant patios. Photo by Michael Somoza

Nina Dragicevic is a freelance journalist who writes for national and local publications, with bylines in the Toronto Star, CBC and Toronto Storeys. She lives car-free in Toronto.

You can reach her at nina.m.dragicevic@gmail.com.

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