Last week I joined a webinar series on The Future of Cities presented by the Ryerson City Building Institute in collaboration with the Urban Land Institute. It included a discussion about the impact of COVID-19 on urban density, housing, work, mobility and neighbourhoods, and what each of these might start to look like in the future.

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The first installment was on The Future of Density and focused on a growing view that density is being labeled as the “enemy,” and is causing the largest cities to be hit hardest by the pandemic. The discussion was moderated by Cherise Burda, Executive Director, City Building Institute, Ryerson University with guests Murtaza Haider, Professor, Ryerson University and Ken Greenberg, Greenberg Consultants.

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The reality is COVID-19 has forced all of us to pause. And after listening to the webinar, I am more convinced than ever that a pause might be just what we need. Particularly when it comes to urban city planning and real estate. While the disruption has challenged our everyday routine and pace, we can and should be using it to our advantage and to challenge the status quo.

 

The webinar was a great example of stakeholders in the industry gathering to reflect on the past, assess the current reality and plan for the future (to the best of our abilities).  As Ken Greenberg commented, it would be a huge loss and mistake if we didn’t treat this as an opportunity to think of our practices differently.

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Source: New York Times

Given the rapid rise of urban density, and the increasing desirability of vibrant urban living in the face of a new normal that might suggest the exact opposite, with instruction to physical distance and shelter in place—will intensification as we know it persist? Cherise Burda asked if there a better way to do density through this new lens? Is there “good and bad” that we should be moving forward to, and reciprocally, moving away from? And might this be an opportunity to build “better” density or will “tall and sprawl” continue?

Ken Greenberg’s premise is that city building is not “one size fits all” and likely never will be. While there’s a place for tall buildings and we see an abundance of them, (as well as the other extreme of sprawl and single family) we continue to address and strive for what’s commonly referred to as “the missing middle.” He also added excellent perspective on the definition of density.

 

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It isn’t merely how large or tall a building is, but what’s inside. And we’re not just talking about the physical “guts” of a building. As we’ve seen during COVID-19, overcrowding can happen even in low density environments. Just think of the spread in some of our long-term health care facilities.

We have to start considering mixed socio-economic environments and break down the clustering of “one type” of neighbourhood that magnifies the “density divide.” This divide refers to the split between “rich” or middle class density for the privileged where they can work remotely, order food and other items through Uber Eats, Amazon etc. while receiving personal services at home., and the other half who often can’t afford these luxuries. It is mostly front-line workers who don’t have those options. But the two worlds clearly need to collide.

According to Greenberg and Haider, despite a concern that this pandemic might jeopardize the affordability we’re trying to insert into our city, services like Toronto Community Housing, programs like OpenDoor, Housing Now, and inclusionary zoning have even more weight now. They’re essential to building social equity into our communities and cities though we may need to rethink how they’re incorporated and what they look like. We may have to reconsider that they may not simply be in the form of small and/or rental. If today is any indication of the future , we’ll have more people living, learning and working from home, so additional space may be a “need to have” not a “nice to have.”

There was  agreement that creative and alternative forms of density will start to sprout as a result of this pandemic and they may look different moving forward. Ken Greenberg talked about 15-minute neighbourhoods, meaning communities where you can do necessary and daily tasks within a 15-minute walk or bicycle ride from your home. I recall a similar concept, called “the popsicle test” which meant you should be able to walk to the convenience store, buy a popsicle, and make it home before it melts. Communities like these add not only convenience but resiliency and environmental sustainability as well.

Murtaza Haider believes we have a sense of urgency today to deal with the enemy at hand, but we can’t ignore the issues like climate change, mobility and affordability. When we look at cities like ours, or megacities like London and New York, hindsight teaches us the policies that promoted density, also bring challenges. Now is the time to recognize that we may not have gotten it 100% right. Do we need to have half a million people working in downtown Toronto? Is it possible to decentralize work locations to enhance mobility and develop livable, walkable communities that take the intense pressure off the core (not within downtown and not encouraging sprawl)?

There are a lot of pieces to this seemingly unsolvable puzzle. Transit is one of them. Greenberg shared that it’s critical to have different modes of mobility for example. Traditionally, our practice and thinking in urban planning was to “value engineer” whenever we could to build out redundancies. The results are some of the challenges we face as everyday citizens – congestion, long commutes etc. He argued that we need to turn that type of thinking upside down. We need to build in redundancy. When we design streets for example, they should contemplate operating in multiple modes. In a scenario like today’s, where we must practice physical distancing, we should be able to move cars off of the road without jeopardizing our ability to get and do what we need. In today’s portrait of a street scene, we are seeing far less cars, and more pedestrians and cyclists. Our streets and sidewalks should accommodate and plan for that moving forward.

Haider used the virtual meeting and webinar as a current example.  If we only had one way to gather for the event, there would have been 50 people in a room at a venue. Instead, we had over 500 attendees, because it was held virtually, which gave the guest list flexibility.

The other aspect Greenberg touched upon, which I’ve been a longtime advocate for, is incorporating social infrastructure into what we’re building. He predicts a shift where value will increasingly be recognized in the services, amenities and social equity we build into our buildings and the surrounding communities. We’ve been focused on dealing with physical elements that our buildings have to resist and withstand (extreme temperatures, flooding etc.), and they’re not wasted efforts. While these are critically important, we also have to plan for situations like the one we’re facing today. How are we prepared to address people’s needs? One of the brilliant ideas Greenberg brought forward was the benefit of having public health officials brought into the planning discussion at the very early stages.

Another conversation that emerged, which might seem unlikely for city builders, focused on geography becoming slightly less relevant and flexibility becoming more relevant. As an example, schools like Ryerson, involve a physical building structure with classrooms that are idle or empty during certain times of the year. In a lot of cases, the ability to teach is restrained by space. COVID has clearly challenged that assumption. What if we were to focus our energy and our budget on increased opportunities and ways to learn, instead of solely on bricks and mortar? What if money was used for scholarships rather than structure. We need to apply that type of thinking to all environments, as there will be more hybrid models in the future. There’s a tradeoff but it’s something we can’t ignore.

As for those tradeoffs, In Ken Greenberg’s work with Sidewalk Labs he addressed an assumption many people have regarding the disproportionate weighting or dominance of technology and the digital world, at the risk of replacing the physical, face-to-face world that we’re so familiar with. This “experiment” as he called it, has shown us more than ever, how critical the interconnectedness between the two is—and that it will be in striking the right balance where we’ll design for the optimum outcome.

Of course, Richard Florida was brought into the conversation during the final moments and, his affection for what arts and culture add to dense cities, without which we’d be at risk. Haider and Greenberg agreed and expressed great concern that we’ll need to focus on these aspects and others that really make cities work since we’ll be unable to “resuscitate” them after the fact. Imagine a city without recreational facilities, theatres, arts venues or hospitality, described by Greenberg as being, “all of the things that speak to our mind, bodies and our human spirit.” The things that bring us together. Things as grand as sports stadiums, or as intimate as the local neighborhood coffee shop or restaurant. The latter of which Murtaza shares the desolate prediction that one in three restaurants are not going to make it through the other side of this pandemic.

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The statistics are grim. While we are trying to remain optimistic that every day is one day closer to the end of this, we know that what will result from it is something different than what we know today. I for one, am trying to focus on the positive, and that we will use it as an “opportunity” to do things even a little bit better than yesterday. After all, with all the pain and suffering that has arisen, it can’t all be for nothing. Let’s make it worth something and start to build a better tomorrow.

 

Feature Image – Toronto Star

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