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Cities After COVID-19
From urban density and public space to transportation and surveillance, these essays explore the challenges cities face during the pandemic and beyond.
Urban Density COVID-19 coronavirus
Will COVID-19 Spell the End of Urban Density? Don’t Bet On It.
1/5
Urban Density: Confronting the Distance Between Desire and Disparity
2/5
COVID-19: Progressive Urban Advocacy Means More than Wider Sidewalks
3/5
Rethinking the Role of Urban Mobility in an Immobile World
4/5
In Praise of the Urban Balcony
5/5
Cities After COVID-19
Urban Density COVID-19 coronavirus

Every day, the circles grow bigger. Updated with each new confirmed patient, the New York Times map of COVID-19 cases charts America’s public health crisis with devastating clarity. Across much of the country, the novel coronavirus is recorded in red specks – representing the few cases scattered throughout rural America. Cities are a stark contrast: From Seattle to Los Angeles, Chicago to New Orleans, the nation’s metropolitan centres are easily identifiable by the expanding swathes of red that now crowd the map. The epicentre? A sprawling ring with New York City at its heart.

It’s a pattern that’s been replicated in large cities the world over. The larger the population, the higher the concentration of COVID-19. In Canada, the highest volume of cases are clustered in Montreal and Toronto. In Spain? Madrid. Italy? The region of Lombardy with the country’s economic powerhouse, Milan, at its centre. The logic of it is simple. From crowded subway cars and sidewalks to hyper-connected global airports, sharing of spaces precipitates sharing of germs. In a pandemic, the connectivity and human proximity of densely populated cities poses alarming risks.

The New York Times map of COVID-19 cases across the United States.

On March 22, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo captured the mood succinctly: “There is a density level in NYC that is destructive,” he tweeted, calling for the city to “develop an immediate plan to reduce density.” He was far from alone. The next day, the headline of Brian M. Rosenthal’s New York Times column echoed Cuomo’s warning: “Density Is New York City’s Big ‘Enemy’ in the Coronavirus Fight.”

Similar sentiments have been widely echoed in recent weeks. “Pandemics have always been the enemy of dense, urban life,” argues Joel Kotkin in the Washington Post. What’s more, Kotkin predicts that the fallout from COVID-19 in “a globalized world that spreads pandemics quickly will push workers back into their cars and out to the hinterlands.” With global warming likely to increase the risk of future pandemics, the prognosis augurs a deepening urban crisis.

It gets worse. The risks to urban density are as socio-economic as they are epidemiological. As the pandemic continues to spread, street-level retail has ground to a halt – potentially tightening Amazon’s grip on consumer spending. Meanwhile, offices the world over have rapidly transitioned to remote work, accelerating the trend towards de-centralized business. Could the change prove permanent? According to The Guardian‘s Alex Hern, “it looks increasingly as if the situation will not ever go back to how it was: many employees for companies who have sent all staff home are already starting to question why they had to go in to the office in the first place.” If that’s the case, Kotkin’s prognosis of cars and highways may well push workers beyond the realm of the suburban commute and into the remoteness – and remote work – of new exurban sprawl. It’s a recipe for a dual crisis: As the cultural desirability of city life comes into question, so too does its economic necessity.

But the future of cities is not as grim as it seems. Although the density and inter-connectivity of urban centres creates obvious vulnerabilities, history – and even the current crisis – shows that cities are also uniquely well-equipped to respond to pandemics, all while retaining their economic and cultural backbones. How come? Understanding the resilience of cities in the face of COVID-19 hinges on two related questions:

  1. Does high population density inherently increase vulnerability to epidemic outbreaks?
  2. Given the collapse of urban retail and the rapid proliferation of remote work, can cities remain culturally and socio-economically vital?

From an epidemiological standpoint, the vulnerabilities of urban life seem clear – until we start to consider the alternatives. At first blush, less densely populated communities appear innately better suited to social distancing and self-isolation. Far from bustling sidewalks and cramped subway cars, rural and suburban lifestyles are removed from the most obvious daily risk factors. In a global pandemic, it comes as little surprise that fear of urban life drives wealthier city-dwellers to their summer homes. In fact, it’s been happening for millennia.

As Laura Bliss and Kriston Capps point out in CityLab, Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron – published in the 14th century – details a scenario that feels eerily familiar today. The book “focused on a troupe of wealthy Florentines — the pandemic preppers of their era — escaping the Black Death that festered in the city by holing up in a country home on the city’s hilly outskirts,” they write. Seven centuries later, COVID-19 makes the suburban backyard and the bucolic countryside every bit as tempting. But then, a lot can change in 700 years.

Today, “transportation networks have made the population shield that rural areas once provided much more porous,” note Bliss and Capps, with the protection once afforded by sheer distance now greatly diluted. In an era of global supply chains and unprecedented personal mobility, the pastoral “countryside” now exists largely in our cultural imagination. From mail carriers and delivery clerks to the streams of cars and trucks speeding down the highway, the world arrives at rural and suburban doorsteps every day. And with it, COVID-19.

Highways and global supply chains make outlying areas vulnerable to pandemics like COVID-19. PHOTO: Abraham Barrera

While major cities – and particularly their airports – still serve as the global entry points for outbreaks, the eventual impacts to outlying communities can be more severe. Urban centres may entail higher risks of initial transmission, but they’re also hubs of vital public health and communication infrastructure – both key resources in fighting a pandemic.*

According to the Globe and Mail‘s Doug Saunders, “the biggest cities are also the safest places in the world.” It may seem counterintuitive, but “only huge cities have the resources and the reserve armies of medical talent to tool their health-care systems up to pandemic-level capacity in time to save lives,” he writes. Even though the daily circumstances of city life pose some heightened risks, automobile suburbs of detached houses and fresh-cut lawns still converge in grocery stores, restaurants and shopping malls – each a potential nexus of transmission.

So far, North America’s largest outbreaks remain concentrated in large cities, but as Saunders points out, “the places with the most unmanageable outbreaks so far have been New Rochelle, N.Y., and Kirkland, Wash. – suburbs without big-city hospital resources.” Meanwhile, a nursing home in the small town of Bobcaygeon is the site of Ontario’s deadliest coronavirus outbreak. And as for the cottage or country house? Better not.

In Norway, the government has already banned city-dwellers from decamping to their country houses, despite the seemingly lower risks of rural transmission. For Toronto’s cottage-goers, the provincial government has similarly advised staying put. In both countries, the rationale is the same: Leaving the city will not eliminate the risk of transmission. Then, once people become sick, caring for them would quickly overwhelm limited local healthcare capacity. (And where large cities can quickly turn sports stadiums and convention centres into emergency hospitals and shelters, more limited outlying infrastructure can seldom be so easily adapted.)

North American cities have been relatively slow to employ effective measures to contain the virus, but Taiwan, Japan, Singapore and South Korea haven’t. Even in their cities with much greater population densities than New York, public health programs aggressively focused on testing, treatment and tracing, and – as a result – have “flattened the curve” faster than the North American strategy of closing international borders. Bolstered by more extensive use of masks and stronger cultural enforcement of social distancing, the public health response in Asia’s advanced economies suggests that urban density is hardly the deciding factor in pandemic severity.

A closer look at New York City’s internal distribution of COVID-19 cases further muddies the role of urban density as a determinant of the outbreak’s danger. The city’s status as a global hub of economy and commercial aviation makes it an unsurprising early epicentre of COVID-19 in America, but the distribution of cases does not correlate with the densest, busiest neighbourhoods. As Treehugger’s Lloyd Alter writes, it’s not Manhattan – or even Brooklyn – that see the most cases per capita, but the far less densely populated boroughs of Queens and Staten Island, with the latter community registering New York’s highest rate of infection. To Alter, the urban pandemic “is not an issue of density as it is an issue of design.”

In the most optimistic predictions, a COVID-19 vaccine still remains some 18 months away. By contrast, the simple design interventions required to boost the health and resilience of cities have been apparent for decades. “Perhaps what is most vividly clear is that the hunger for and gift of the public streets, squares and parks has never been more crucial,” architect Marion Weiss tells me. A principal of New York’s Weiss/Manfredi, she stresses that public health has historically been a driving force of urban design – as it should be now.

“Just as New York developed light and air requirements as vertical density was made feasible through the invention of the elevator, the parks designed during the Olmstead era claimed the centres and edges of urban areas to preserve space for every individual to connect with nature and each other,” says Weiss. “Parks, then and today, are social equalizers, and are biologically and spiritually essential.”

Reflecting on Governor Cuomo’s quip about the “destructive” danger of New York City life, Weiss argues that density is “not inherently destructive, but necessitates the design and preservation of generously conceived parks and urban spaces.” In other words, we ought to build more – and better – public spaces, both to reduce the acute risk of community transmission and to improve overall public health.

On Staten Island, for example, the high rates of infection may have more to do with a lack of adequate public infrastructure than density per se. In simple logistical terms, there are precious few sidewalks in all of North America – let alone Staten Island – where two people can cross paths while comfortably keeping six feet of distance. We can start by creating more of them.

On this issue, Weiss and Cuomo might find some common ground. The Governor recently called for New York City to close streets to cars, creating generous pedestrian-only environments. While the stopgap solution won’t foster the vital quality of space championed by Weiss, it will at least help keep people apart.

In Toronto, urban planner Gil Meslin has similarly proposed the temporary pedestrianization of downtown Yonge Street – the city’s most important north-south artery. For “a dense community of tens of thousands,” the closure to vehicle traffic would provide “a central spine of public realm suitable for social distancing,” Meslin tweeted.

Planner Gil Meslin has suggested making a downtown stretch of Yonge Street a pedestrian-only zone to help facilitate social distancing. PHOTO: Alireza Khoddam

These aren’t new ideas. While a plan to permanently re-make part of Toronto’s Yonge Street into a more pedestrian-friendly environment has been under formal municipal consideration since well before the pandemic, the wider push for pedestrian space echoes the basic tenets of human-centric urbanism famously promoted by Jane Jacobs over half a century ago. In 2020, it all takes on new urgency.

What about social and economic health? Cities are surprisingly well positioned to withstand the COVID-19 outbreak in endemic terms, but the socio-economic consequences could still prove devastating. Will street-level retail and cultural life ever fully recover? And will the abrupt transition to remote office work spark a permanent decentralization, hollowing out the core of downtown business districts?

For urbanist Richard Florida, the latter question is easier to answer. “Jobs in finance, entertainment, media – all of them depend on personal networks,” he tells me. While occasional remote work will almost certainly continue to become normalized, creative white-collar jobs “will continue to cluster in cities.” According to Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Lucas, the interactions facilitated by dense urban environments incubate sharing of ideas and innovation, with economic development spurred by the “spillovers” fostered by dense, culturally vibrant milieus. In other words, geography still matters.

Even tech jobs – which are built on the ostensibly “placeless” global infrastructure of the internet – have become increasingly concentrated in a select few hubs like San Francisco, New York and Toronto. For all the Zoom calls in the world, the white-collar future is poised to remain mostly urban. Fifteen years after Thomas Friedman’s influential book The World is Flat argued that the global economy would become geographically dispersed in the internet era, employment in the so-called “knowledge economy” is increasingly dominated by cities. As Florida has previously put it, “the world isn’t flat, it’s spiky… and the greatest cities are the tallest spikes.” But relatively high-income office workers ought to be the least of our concerns.

If the economic “success” of global financial hubs like New York and Toronto is set to continue relatively unabated, so too is the crippling socio-economic inequality that plagues them. Long before the coronavirus decimated retailers, restaurants and cultural venues, sky-rocketing rents and stagnant service-sector wages threatened to make life in global cities untenable for all but the highest earners. Yet, if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that grocery clerks, transit operators, cooks, nurses and delivery people keep cities running in a crisis – not bankers and stockbrokers. And as office employees retreat to the safety of their homes, service workers shoulder the risks of public life for the rest of us.

New York is down, but certainly not out. PHOTO: Colton Duke

“We have to pay service workers better, and we have to protect them better,” says Florida. Just as the pandemic brings new urgency to longstanding calls for a healthier and more equitable public realm, its economic fallout only exacerbates existing social inequities. The crises of affordability, decaying street-level retail, insufficient public space and unliveable urban wages were not caused by COVID-19, but the coronavirus has put the spatial and socio-economic inequalities of our cities into stark relief. The good news, at least, is that the solutions to pre-existing crises are also likely to ameliorate the fallout of the pandemic.

The calls for restricting evictions, ending homelessness, strengthening social housing, supplementing lost incomes and – in the U.S. – creating universal free healthcare are not new, but they are more urgent than ever. Meanwhile, the rapid collapse of Airbnb listings is returning a flood of units into the urban housing supply in cities across North America. It raises the question: In the midst of an affordability crisis, why didn’t cities regulate companies like Airbnb much more stringently to begin with?

Combined with a more protected housing market, a stronger social safety net will be vital to protecting the equity and inclusivity of cities – in turn fostering more diverse places. But even so, the sheer epidemiological terror of COVID-19 cannot be swiftly undone. “My fear is that the restaurants that survive are going to be the big chains,” restaurateur David Chang tells the New York Times, “and we’re going to eradicate the very eclectic mix that makes America and going out to eat so vibrant and great.” Florida puts it to me more bluntly and broadly: “Will people want to walk down empty streets?” Likely not.

“It will probably take years for people to fully return to theatres, restaurants and concerts,” says Florida, citing the lingering fears that have followed previous pandemics. For street-level retail, meanwhile, the pandemic accelerates another existing crisis – this one driven by online shopping. Here, Weiss’s prescription for better public spaces can pay dividends. In designing for health and in building safer and more comfortable public spaces, we will also help invite life back into the city.

“What is striking now is that dense cities, while they strain the capacity of our social and physical infrastructures, the most common thread is the value of open space,” Weiss says. “It connects us to the horizon, it connects us to each other – if for now at a greater physical distance – and is robust enough in scale to endure.”

These are hard-won lessons, yet they risk being too easily forgotten. “As a society, we’ve forgotten how much public health has shaped our cities,” says Florida. “Pandemics have caused some of the biggest changes in how we design cities, but we tend to forget their roots,” he says. “I was actually born in the middle of a pandemic, but my parents never, ever talked about it” Florida tells me, referencing the 1957-1958 H2N2 outbreak. (I’d never heard of it, and had to look it up).

Born a generation earlier, novelist Margaret Atwood recalls another near-forgotten pandemic era. “Any child growing up in Canada in the 1940s, at a time before there were vaccines for a horde of deadly diseases, was familiar with quarantine signs,” writes Atwood in the Globe and Mail. “They were yellow and they appeared on the front doors of houses. They said things such as DIPHTHERIA and SCARLET FEVER and WHOOPING COUGH.” It happened within Atwood’s lifetime, but reading it in 2020, it might as well be a passage from her dystopian fiction. Nonetheless, past pandemics hold important lessons.

“Without a series of devastating global cholera outbreaks in the 19th century… the need for a new, modern sewerage system may never have been identified,” writes Jack Shenker in The Guardian. Like the explicitly racist origins of modern zoning and the vital role of labour unions in securing modern worker’s rights, it’s a chapter in urban history that’s grown uncomfortably far removed from public consciousness. In years to come, the lessons of 2020 risk being similarly overlooked.

Once the COVID-19 crisis subsides, it will be imperative to keep public health at the heart of urban planning, design and public policy. But if the palimpsest of cultural memory is once again wiped clean, the pandemics of the future are only likely to be more deadly. And if history teaches us anything, it’s that the current outbreak won’t be the last.

In all of this, it helps to remember why cities are worth fighting for. Even in the depth of a pandemic, urban density remains one of the best tools we have for fighting another threat to humanity – global warming. If we hope to avoid the environmental decimation of further sprawl and automobile dependancy, cities are our best hope. In our rapidly urbanizing world, metropolitan centres (including many dense and walkable suburbs) are also home to more of the human population than ever before, fostering an unprecedented level of cultural and ethnic diversity. In no small way, the fight for density is also the fight for a more open and tolerant world.

In the long run, today’s cresting anti-urban sentiment may prove as great a threat to cities as COVID-19 itself. If we do not eventually re-embrace the togetherness of city life, “marks of the virus would be more highways and more houses, fenced off from each other and scattered apart, a landscape that’s alive but not entirely healthy,” writes architecture critic Alex Bozikovic. It doesn’t – and shouldn’t – have to be that way.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic appears far from over. With the U.S. emerging as the virus’ new epicentre, the global death toll is rapidly climbing and an almost unprecedented economic crisis is deepening, with isolation as humanity’s best defence. But even with urban life on hold, there’s reason enough for optimism. And there are already lessons worth learning, and remembering. The pandemic won’t last forever, but our response to it will shape our cities – and our society – for decades to come.

Since coronavirus, Katrina, a former foster care kid, visits her elderly birth mother twice per week to provide in-home support and ensure that she is social distancing. These visitations are a part of a decade-long-journey toward reconciling their fractured relationship – an arrhythmic dance that began long before the pandemic. These days, Katrina’s walk from her basement apartment on a residential street two short blocks from her mother’s public housing apartment is filled with a new complication.

When Katrina approaches her mother’s building, she is greeted by bare-faced construction workers huddled together. A violent stairwell mugging prompted the housing provider to install a security system and replace a malfunctioning video camera, so she now uses a key FOB to enter the foyer. Too small for social distancing, the foyer is little more than a row of mailboxes on the left, and a couple of benches, now abandoned, on the right. Two of the three elevators are chronically out-of-service, and the sole operating lift is often sullied with urine and feces.

She takes it all the way to top of the building, where harsh fluorescent lights expose chipped walls and ageing brown laminate floors. Katrina slowly steps out, looks over her shoulder, then hurries down the hallway and enters the apartment. Her amma, a South Asian word for mother, greets her with an unhealed silence entangled in histories of war and displacement. The pair navigate the tiny apartment wordlessly, beneath a ceiling speckled with a yellowish popcorn pattern. Sometimes Katrina stares out a window that lets in rain and cold, at a condo across the street. She notices an array of sleek blinds instead of garbage bags and old bed sheets, shielding the dignity of its residents. Exhaling deeply, she wonders if the air is as heavy on the other side. 

It is this distance – not the street separating these two particular buildings, but a profound socio-spatial divide – where coronavirus health and density disparities are laid bare. And while there is a risk that highlighting this reality could fuel what award-winning writer Doug Saunders describes as “an atavistic deep-set fear of big cities as pits of disease,” negating this divide poses an even greater threat to the advancement of urban intensification. Instead of merely postulating about the desirability of density, it is necessary to define good urban density and confront the health challenges faced by individuals like Katrina and her mother. 

This begins by acknowledging what Roger Keil, an urban scholar and public intellectual, frames as the mixed and diverse densities that “manifest themselves at the peripheries.” His radical body of work establishes the foundation for casting our gaze beyond the gentrified density championed by mainstream urbanists to the multitude of dense typologies within cities themselves and across the globe. Building upon Keil’s discursive framework – which positions density as both pluralistic and decentralized – I’ve coined two terms for better understanding coronavirus related health risks faced by those from historically marginalized groups. 

First, there’s dominant density, designed by and for predominately white, middle-class urban dwellers living in high-priced condominiums within or adjacent to the city’s downtown core. My urbanist colleagues tend to depict these sites of density as a utopia of aspirational millennials and neat nuclear families with 1.5 children and a small hypoallergenic dog. An emphasis is placed on large parks, generous pedestrian infrastructure, proximity to jobs and chic gentrifying coffee shops. Aside from the latter, these neighbourhood amenities significantly contribute to improved public health. The problem is that dominant density propagated by mainstream urbanism fails to adequately address social determinants of health, like income, race and disability, which are proven to be deepening coronavirus related health and social inequality. While some urbanists are more inclusive in their approach, the vast majority do not imagine the kind of building Katrina’s mother lives in when thinking about density. 

The second term is forgotten densities. This form of density expands the dominant density discourse (and its myopic, privileged framework) and includes favelas, shanty towns, factory dormitories, seniors’ homes, tent cities, Indigenous reserves, prisons, mobile home parks, shelters and public housing. These types of densities extend into the peripheries Keil describes – including both the suburbs and density types in cities outside of North America, which is crucial in a global pandemic. 

These densities emerge from distinct histories and socio-political forces. However, they have common characteristics such as ageing infrastructure, over-policing, predatory enterprises like cheque-cashing businesses and liquor stores, inadequate transportation options, and sick buildings – structures that contribute to illness due to their poor design, materials and maintenance. The health of poor and racialized people has significantly been impeded by these issues – created and agitated by inequitable approaches to urban density.  

In addition to negating this correlation, mainstream urbanism fails to integrate a holistic approach to health and design. When discussing urban density in relation to the coronavirus, urbanists tend to reference dense cities that have been successful with flattening the curve. While counting the number of new cases is an important indicator, it isn’t the only one. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” This definition of health allows us to consider the unwieldy range of health challenges faced by vulnerable groups during this time. 

While mainstream urbanists are loudly advocating to widen sidewalks and public parks – two important but narrow points of focus – individuals living in forgotten densities are pleading to have their urgent concerns heard. Black men, disproportionately profiled and murdered by police on streets, are weighing the risk of ignoring directives to wear a mask and possibly contracting the virus or wearing a mask and suffering the humiliation of being asked to leave stores when attempting to shop for essential supplies. Advocates for those experiencing homelessness warn that the deadly mix of crowding and a communicable disease will lead to catastrophic consequences. A petition has been started by those concerned about elders living in densely populated long-term facilities. Even in cities where the curve is flattening or hasn’t reached its deadly peak, communities living in forgotten densities – which tend to be disproportionately racialized and poor – are suffering in the margins.  

A quick scroll through any number of citizen-led community care groups further reveals the health concerns of those living in forgotten densities. These individuals are scared to leave their apartments for essential reasons because they can’t practice social distancing in cramped entranceways, elevators and laundry rooms. Those with underlying medical conditions are being placed at risk because families comprised of six people living in two-bedroom apartments do not have the space to quarantine within the home or the financial resources to quarantine elsewhere. 

Many individuals also lack access to balconies – and those who do are often left contending with toxic pigeon excrement. A deadly chorus of coughing and the uproar of domestic violence echoes off hallway walls and internal stairwells where some children, unable to find learning space within their living quarters, are doing their homework. Almost all of these individuals lack access to reliable public transit and can’t afford to have essential items delivered to their homes. Moreover, the naked vulnerability of those living rough on the streets has never been starker. 

These forgotten densities, and more egregiously forgotten people, were plagued with ageing infrastructure, poor design and negligible maintenance well before COVID-19. While overlooked, the data tells a complex story that mainstream urbanists seem intent on simplifying.  

In 2004, the Canadian Institute for Health Information published Housing and Population Health: The State of Current Research Knowledge, an exhaustive paper that clearly lays out an extensive list of density-related health challenges. “Individuals living in close proximity to each other will more easily spread infectious diseases,” it states. “This was a major impetus to public health action on housing over a hundred years ago. There are still examples in particular settings where this is of significant concern in Canada.” The paper also highlights that multiple studies have “found an association between multi-dwelling housing and adverse mental health,” which is partially explained by “social isolation in high-rise dwellings, lack of play space for children, fear of crime, and stigmatization related to building appearance.” In fact, “several studies have found an association between higher floor level and poorer mental health.” 

Notably, the paper also highlights that numerous studies have “examined the potential association between damp housing conditions and respiratory ailments in occupants.” This issue impacts 38 per cent of Canadian homes, including significant problems “in some First Nations communities due to a combination of inappropriate housing design, poor construction, inadequate maintenance, and poor ventilation.” While the First Nations communities referred to are located outside of urban areas, similar findings pertaining to increased occurrences of asthma and bronchitis have emerged from studies in densely populated inner-city neighbourhoods inhabited by other racialized groups. 

Another illuminating study, titled Housing and Health: Time Again for Public Health Action asserts:  

Features of substandard housing, including lack of safe drinking water, absence of hot water for washing, ineffective waste disposal, intrusion by disease vectors (e.g., insects and rats) and inadequate food storage have long been identified as contributing to the spread of infectious diseases. Crowding is associated with transmission of tuberculosis and respiratory infections. Lack of housing and the overcrowding found in temporary housing for the homeless also contribute to morbidity from respiratory infections and activation of tuberculosis.

These health issues are common in forgotten densities located in developing countries, and, shamefully, within affluent cities across North America. The data, while disturbing, doesn’t begin to capture the hardship caused by these density-related health issues on the ground. 

My placemaking practice is focused on urban design and social equity spanning North America. I regularly build bridges between mainstream urbanists and individuals from equity-seeking groups like women, residents living on low-incomes and racialized people. Occupying this in-between space is both professionally risky and laborious because urbanism professions, historically a technocracy, have failed to respond to the deeply personal dimensions of urban densification. 

Amid my less hectic schedule, I reflect on the privilege of owning a downtown Toronto loft with a window wall leading out to a generous balcony that overlooks a beautiful gated courtyard. My home isn’t lavish by any stretch of the imagination but I’m very comfortable. The only thing that overshadows my gratitude during this pandemic is my outrage that people living in forgotten densities cannot afford the luxury of health, and in some instances, life. Although it’s currently intensified, this realization is not new to me. 

I grew up in a poorly designed public housing high-rise that adversely impacted the quality of health in the community. It’s the kind of community that Thomas P. Costello, a former housing authority leader, critiqued as “geared to production, not to providing decent housing for poor people,” which “virtually guaranteed failure.”

By sharing research and personal experiences revealing long-standing and current coronavirus health disparities agitated by urban density, I’m not taking an anti-density stance. As urbanists, we should critique the things we feel most passionate about to achieve urban equity and design excellence – in that order. In addition to public health, urban density can contribute to land use efficiencies, economic opportunity and strong social networks. Even in forgotten densities, people consistently rise above discriminatory design practices and policies, to nurture the well-being of their communities. The value and necessity of urban density are undeniable. However, achieving good urban density for all is complex. 

In his paper Sustainable urbanism: towards a framework for quality and optimal density?, Steffen Lehmann, an architect, urban designer and professor at The University of Portsmouth, examines this complexity. “Density is one of the key issues in planning that can regularly create all kinds of misunderstandings and tensions, but is an essential driver of our urban futures,” Lehmann writes. We cannot fulfil this future without delving into the specificity of the misunderstandings and tensions. Most urgently, we need to make clear distinctions between desirable compact urban living and the other c-word urbanists tend to avoid: crowding. There is a fine yet highly contested line between the two. 

Psychologists tend to define crowding within the construct of desirability – and the emotions arising from a sense of spatial lack. A review of density intensity theory shows that dense environments elicit increased human responses to both positive and negative situations. Therefore, some of the negative health outcomes correlated with urban density – like aggression or lack of community cohesion – are not solely consequences of the built environment. This finding does not diminish well documented health conditions caused by some types of density. It compels us to be thorough – and confirms that factors such as violations of personal space, culture, trust and beliefs about the impacts of density also contribute to health outcomes. Psychologist Jonathan Freedman adds to this argument; he delineates the difference between physical crowding, defined as a lack of space, and perceived crowding, defined as a sensation or distinct feeling related to space. 

Mainstream urbanists have difficulty responding to these psychological nuances because the metrics used to measure urban density are floor area ratios, residential density and population density. These and other spatial metrics are relevant but woefully inadequate for addressing our human needs.

We’ve yet to fully explore how living in relatively small, spatially dispersed groups for the vast majority of human history may be contributing to something I refer to as collective urban density bias. This phenomenon helps to explain why, regardless of social or spatial realm, many people who live in cities have a negative perception of density. Namely, they fear that it will impinge on individual and community health: Urban dwellers with affluence resist density, arguing a fear of traffic congestion and loss of neighbourhood character – code for wanting to preserve racial and class homogeneity. Those aspiring to affluence resist density because they’ve bought into the fallacy of the single-family home and car as synonyms of success. And those struggling in the margins resist density because its disparities have hemmed them in or erased them. As urbanists, we cannot simply dismiss this collective resistance; we need to create space to unpack and address it. 

Most of us, urbanists and everyday folks, have a sense of the characteristics of density that contribute to our well-being. We know that the isolated urban typologies championed by Le Corbusier and Robert Moses directly contributed to segregation and the concentration of despair. We know that everyone thrives when they have access to green space and culturally responsive amenities, which is especially important as the footprint of individual living spaces continues to be reduced. We know that Toronto’s yellow belt – a term coined by urban planner Gil Meslin to describe low-rise residential areas where policy frameworks protect “stable physical character” over expanding accessibility – needs be unlocked to accommodate middle-to-lower income residents and diverse housing types. We know that transit-supportive densities create pathways to both physical destinations and possibility. We know that we’re facing a crisis of aging and sick building infrastructure that needs to be rehabilitated without displacing entire communities.  

Perhaps most importantly, despite the spirited defence of density, we know that failure to advance these and other progressive approaches have impeded the health of forgotten people living in forgotten densities. 

Moreover, communities are organizing and educating themselves about city-building processes. They refuse to be merely “consulted” about the growth of their cities; they expect to co-create their parks, housing developments, markets and streets. This emergent sense of something I refer to as healthy spatial entitlement is heartening. I am pleased to see a number of initiatives arising to combat complex challenges. The Association for Neighbourhood and Housing Development, a New York based non-profit membership organization developed an excellent Anti-Displacement Policy Toolkit that provides a wide range of policies and case studies to combat resident displacement. There is also an emergence of equitable development plans like the one produced for Wahsington, D.C.’s 11th Street Bridge Park. The plan is intended to increase affordable housing stock, create connections to the business corridors and provide construction and post-construction jobs for local residents. Closer to home, the City of Toronto’s RAC Zone is an initiative that successfully worked to replace outdated zoning restrictions – allowing for a range of small-scale businesses and community amenities, from pop-up markets and urban agriculture to health services and grocery stores.

Building on these and other good examples will require systemic interventions addressing architecture, urban design, planning legislation and social policy, while fostering respectful partnerships on the hyper-local level. We can no longer intensify cities using a site-by-site approach, vulnerable to political agendas and loud dissenting voices. 

Instead of being fearful of increased anti-density bias, we need to apply what we know toward a good urban density framework. This framework should be evidence-based and overlap with social determinants of health, such as food security, race, gender and poverty, while being anchored in a strong equity-based placemaking paradigm. It should be co-created through meaningful engagement with urbanists, public health professionals, community members and other stakeholders. Fully undertaking this scope of work is not possible during a pandemic. But we can certainly advance the process instead of diminishing the suffering of those experiencing density-related health challenges. If we’re successful in the long-term, perhaps we’ll find a way to mitigate the distance between the public housing apartment where Katrina’s mother lives and the condo on the other side of their misfortune.

Jay Pitter, MES, is an award-winning placemaker and author whose practice mitigates growing divides in cities across North America. She also shapes urgent city-building conversations through media and academic platforms. Jay has been named the John Bousfield Distinguished Visitor in Planning by the University of Toronto and her forthcoming book, Where We Live, will be published by McClelland & Stewart, Penguin Random House Canada.   

For pedestrians, Toronto is dangerous at the best of times. In 2019, 42 pedestrians were killed on the streets of Canada’s largest city. Hundreds more were injured, with an average of six people hit by a car each day of the year. 2020 is different. While COVID-19 means there are fewer cars on the roads, the pandemic poses an acute epidemiological peril – one that most sidewalks aren’t nearly wide enough to alleviate.

My own walk to the grocery store is a weekly brush with danger. From my Keele Street apartment to the nearest grocer at Bloor and Dundas West, the short trip unfolds in a pattern of zig-zags to keep at least two metres of space from other people. On Toronto’s narrow sidewalks, maintaining the social distance prescribed by public health authorities often leaves pedestrians no option but to repeatedly step out onto the road and into harm’s way. It’s an uncomfortable calculus: Risk the spread of contagion or the hood of a car?

Daniel Rotsztain has experienced the same problem. The Toronto resident and urban geographer built what he describes as a “social distancing machine” to demonstrate the difficulty of navigating the city on foot. Rigged up from plastic and pink rubber tubing, his contraption creates a two-metre ring around the wearer. In a playful yet arresting video, Rotzstain’s camera follows collaborator Bobby Gadda as he attempts to navigate downtown Toronto with a two-metre radius. The results are alarming.

Over the course of the minute-long video, Gadda is repeatedly left with no choice but to step out to the middle of the road. Even with Yonge Street (usually the city’s pedestrian spine) all but emptied of people, the narrow sidewalks force Gadda into traffic. And on a street full of everything from mailboxes, sidewalk advertising and telephone poles to garbage cans and construction hoarding, Rotsztain’s device illustrates the paucity of real pedestrian space.

The obverse of Rotsztain’s argument for more room to manoeuvre is expressed in an open letter by Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Eileen De Vila. She argues that the “closing of lanes to provide more space for pedestrians and cyclists could have the impact of inducing pedestrian and cyclist usage.” In other words, creating more space only invites more street life, exacerbating the risk of viral transmission. The city’s sidewalks tell another story.

If Rotsztain’s experiment, which attracted a wealth of local and international press, laid bare the everyday challenges of social distancing in the downtown core with eclectic humour, architect Julie Bogdanowicz’s impromptu chalk measurements of sidewalks document a mean residential public realm with elegant clarity. In order for two or more people to safely pass, someone has to step into the street. And though Dr. De Vila’s warning about increased walking and cycling merits consideration, the status quo endangers pedestrians at every turn. Induced demand or not, how can people be expected to keep two metres apart on 1.5-metre sidewalks?

Toronto’s inaction is a contrast to other cities around the world. From Mexico City, Milan, Oakland, Berlin and Budapest to Minneapolis, Austin and Auckland, widened sidewalks, new temporary bike lanes and pedestrianized roads have opened up vital space for physical distancing. While Canadian cities as a whole are lagging behind their international counterparts, Toronto’s response pales in comparison to Vancouver, Montreal and Winnipeg, where select streets have been wholly or partially shut to car traffic. In Ottawa, a pilot project has closed the Queen Elizabeth Driveway to daily vehicle traffic between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.

But we needn’t turn our gaze even that far afield. Some of the Greater Toronto Area’s other municipalities have taken more proactive measures. In an effort to create “safe active transportation opportunities,” the City of Brampton has temporarily closed two curb lanes to vehicle traffic, creating interim bike lanes along the Vodden Street corridor. Compared to Toronto’s passivity, even these decidedly modest measures seem bold.

But if the city has failed to act, it hasn’t been for lack of advocacy. From urbanist Twitter to legacy media, Toronto’s municipal government has resisted a chorus of calls to open streets and roll back closures of parks and playgrounds. Led by local councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, the unsuccessful campaign to open part of downtown Yonge Street has been covered by the CBC, Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail. The broader disenchantment with lack of pedestrian space has also garnered substantial media coverage, with a recent Globe and Mail editorial outlining “an immediate need to open up space in densely populated areas of Canada’s cities,” citing downtown Yonge Street as “an obvious starting point.”

While Toronto’s city council has rightly been criticized for failing to take more proactive measures, the focused push for downtown walkability has itself fostered a narrow urban discourse. As placemaker and author Jay Pitter points out in her recent Azure essay, “mainstream urbanists are loudly advocating to widen sidewalks and public parks,” all while “individuals living in forgotten densities are pleading to have their urgent concerns heard.”

From public housing communities and seniors’ residences to favelas and mobile home parks, Pitter’s forgotten densities describe the people and places left out of mainstream narratives of urban life. A pedestrianized Yonge Street would be a welcome amenity for downtown condo-dwellers, but it doesn’t mean much for those living in Toronto’s geographic and socio-economic margins.

Speaking to the Canadian Press, Edmonton-based urban neuroscientist Robin Mazumder points out that life during the COVID-19 pandemic “varies with class and income.” While lower-income people are less likely to have “a house with a big backyard,” Mazumder notes that the temporary street closures adopted on Edmonton’s Victoria Park Drive and Saskatchewan Road will mostly serve wealthy residents who already benefit from private green space and easy access to deliveries and essential services.

For Toronto – and cities across North America – Edmonton’s experience offers a cautionary tale. Even if Yonge Street (and other downtown corridors) are closed to traffic, these necessary measures may exacerbate the already unequal impacts of COVID-19 across racial and class divides. With the pandemic only poised to widen existing inequalities, a progressive urban response must work to correct these disparities.

For starters, the push to pedestrianize streets needs to include dense urban communities outside the downtown core. Toronto’s uniquely high concentration of suburban high-rise apartments – mostly built according to a Corbusian model of isolated towers – means that many of our least pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods are also among the most dense. Downtown Yonge Street should be pedestrianized, but – perhaps more importantly – so too should stretches of North York and Scarborough.

PHOTO: Stefan Novakovic

Pitter’s incisive essay also points to the obvious deficiencies that afflicted Toronto’s public housing stock long before COVID-19. From foyers “too small for social distancing” to a building where “two of the three elevators are chronically out-of-service, and the sole operating lift is often sullied with urine and feces,” scores of Torontonians face much more acute dangers than crowded sidewalks. In April 2019 alone, dysfunctional elevators in Toronto Community Housing (TCH) buildings meant that a 15-year-old student was unable to attend school because his wheelchair could not fit into the building’s sole operating lift, and a 45-year-old man suffered injuries after falling down an open elevator shaft in his downtown apartment building.

As a more pedestrian-friendly Yonge Street continues to be debated, immediate funding for elevator repair and building maintenance is needed for the city’s chronically underfunded social housing communities. More regular cleaning for hallways, lobbies and balconies – many of which have become unusable due to pigeon infestations – is also an urgent but uncomplicated priority, with the pandemic only intensifying the need to address the broader problems of TCH’s ageing housing stock and $1.6 billion repair backlog.

The built environment is only part of the equation. Toronto’s reticence to open sidewalks and parks has been paired with a culture of punitive surveillance. Playgrounds and park amenities have been cordoned off with yellow tape, and a “social distancing blitz” saw police and bylaw officers issue almost 500 tickets of $750 each between April 3 and 20. With access to big backyards and private green space divided across racial and class lines, the structure of the blitz – and the associated social shaming of park users – risks regressively punishing those who need public amenities most. And given Toronto’s long history of racialized and discriminatory policing, the only difference between illegal “lingering” and legal “resting purposes” may be an officer’s judgement.

On April 22, Deputy Mayor Ana Bailão announced that fines for merely sitting on benches will no longer be issued – though penalties for using park amenities and gathering in groups remain in effect. To make matters worse, the City of Toronto’s dedicated “snitch line” is another example of surveillance tied to enforcement. While the online non-compliance form allows for the collection of important complaints – such as price-gouging and unsafe business practices – the invitation to report “large gatherings” and “use of parks amenities” is fraught with potential for abuse.

Urban Density: Confronting the Distance Between Desire and Disparity
Placemaker and author Jay Pitter argues for an equity-based understanding of urban density during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.

According to data gathered in American states and cities, racialized communities have disproportionately faced impacts of COVID-19. (In Michigan, for example, Black people account for some 40 per cent of COVID-19 deaths, despite making up 14 per cent of the overall population.) By contrast, the City of Toronto only announced a program to start collecting race-based COVID-19 data as of April 21, while the Province of Ontario continues to argue that such measures are wholly unnecessary. It’s a startling position, especially considering a Toronto Star report that “organizations serving Canada’s urban Indigenous population are sounding alarm bells about the growing needs of this vulnerable group,” while criticizing a “sluggish and inadequate” response from the government. In a pandemic, Toronto’s chronic failure to tackle homelessness is also proving deadlier than ever.

Amid all of this, urbanist discourse – and media coverage – during the pandemic has remained too fixated on widening downtown sidewalks and opening parks. As an urbanist and a journalist, I have been as guilty as anyone: After reading Pitter’s essay, I was struck by how people living in forgotten densities were overlooked in my own analysis of COVID-19 and urban density. This has to change. During the pandemic and beyond, every call to expand pedestrian infrastructure and parks must be matched by an equally strong push for urbanism at the margins – and creating space for forgotten communities as city builders.

Racial and class disparities are deeply enmeshed into the geographic and cultural fabric of North American society, and the COVID-19 crisis is making the differences more keenly felt. These injustices are rooted in much more than urbanism, and the process of untangling them will require near-revolutionary social changes – continuing decades after the pandemic. For now, at least, it’ll help if the elevators are running.

Lead photo by Nikhil Mitra via Unsplash.

When the email to shelter in place came in mid-March, my partner and I simply packed up our laptops, grabbed some extra stationery, replenished our online grocery orders and headed home early. As we self-isolate, our daily pattern of movement is now confined to a 500-metre radius that includes the local park, supermarket, greengrocer, pharmacy and my father’s apartment.

We are privileged to work from home, but many others are not so lucky. Our self-isolated lives have been supported by a steady stream of couriers who risk their health and well-being making sure our power cables, toilet paper and lunches appear at our door. As we rediscover the joys of isolated walks in our neighbourhoods, there are essential workers that continue to travel to and from pharmacies, supermarkets and hospitals to support the rest of us.

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended our daily patterns of movement and life in the city – a disruption that is felt unevenly. It has also underscored the critical role urban mobility plays in our daily lives and, at the same time, it has highlighted how the status quo could change to foster a more equitable system of mobility. 

Cities are magnetic, and people will return, but how will we inhabit them?

First, we must resist the urge to apply pre-existing solutions to the current crisis. We must also avoid solutions shrink-wrapped for the current pandemic, assuming that the next global crisis will require the same epidemiological response. Instead, our design thinking will need to be grounded in societal values, clear data and research.

At Perkins and Will, we have started to consider a post-COVID-19 recovery in three stages: the immediate period of emergency response, followed by a period of physical distancing and testing, and, finally, a post-vaccine recovery. Each demands a unique response from the design profession.

1
EMERGENCY RESPONSE

Along with healthcare and other sectors, public transit has been significantly disrupted by this pandemic. Ridership has plummeted by 70 to 90 per cent in cities across the world. Transit operators have suffered fatalities at incredible rates – New York’s Metropolitan Transport Authority alone has seen over 50 subway and bus operators succumb to the effects of COVID-19. In spite of this, busses continue the critical role of ferrying nurses to hospitals and packers to distribution centres across our cities. 

After cutting back service across the board, Toronto’s TTC recently reinstated service on 15 routes. Not surprisingly, all routes corresponded to places where distribution warehouses, food processing plants, light industrial facilities, and industrial bakeries are concentrated, as well as the lower-income neighbourhoods of many of their employees. Systems around the world have also introduced rear-door boarding, empty cars, or even free fares in an effort to protect operators and promote physical distancing. Their operators quickly implemented increased cleaning regimens and plastic guards to limit the spread of the virus. 

Meanwhile, the frailty of the just-in-time supply chains that support our lifestyles have been made visible by shortages of milk and eggs at the local supermarket and online delivery platforms that offer time slots past midnight. Scooter and bike share companies Bird and Lime have pulled their fleets, while Uber continues to adjust its sick pay policies. The taxi industry has seen near complete shutdowns.

The bike lanes and pedestrian spaces that line Vancvouer’s Marine Gateway become even more vital to mobility in a pandemic.

As vehicular traffic on our streets has dropped, cities as diverse as Berlin, Winnipeg and Auckland have responded by quickly re-allocating space to active modes of transportation – biking and walking – in an effort to promote physical distancing.

Together, these experiences highlight the vital importance of public transit and mobility services in the function of our cities, while shedding new light on the social inequities of urban transportation. As we embrace new behaviours and perspectives, now is the time to examine which ones will stay for the long-term.

2
PHYSICAL DISTANCING AND THE REALLOCATION OF ACTIVITY

As the emergency response winds down, we will likely enter an interim period where we try to balance continued physical distancing with a staged return to work – and possibly widely mandated COVID-19 testing by health authorities.

Service planners will look to reduce peak loading during “rush hour” by adjusting service and pricing systems to incentivize off-peak travel. Stations and stops will likely require crowd control measures that promote new space standards during queuing and travel, and spaces may need to be re-appropriated for testing programs mandated by public health authorities. Touch-less fare collection and validation could serve to eliminate physical touch points along the journey. Accessible hand-washing stations at key points may need to be accommodated, as well.

On our streets, the temporary reallocation of space may become a permanent solution. With an overall reduction in traffic, space could also be repurposed for essential deliveries and public hygiene facilities to support the well-being of delivery workers.

Transit-priority lanes, like those implemented on King Street in Toronto or 14th Street in New York, could be quick wins that deliver rapid transit quickly and introduce redundancy missing in heavy rail networks.

These efforts will need to be balanced against pressures to shift to single-occupant vehicles — as seen in Wuhan in the wake of the crisis. Similarly, Transportation Demand Management (TDM) programs or High-Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes that rely on carpooling will require new approaches and strategies.

3
REIMAGINING MOBILITY IN A POST-VACCINE WORLD

If and when a COVID-19 vaccine is developed, we’ll need to adjust our thinking to the long-term and how our systems will remain resilient in future global crises. The top six transit agencies in the U.S., for example, support over 35 per cent of U.S. GDP and act as critical links to jobs, education and opportunity. Rethinking urban mobility in a post-vaccine world will need to consider three key factors: resilience, equity and public health, and research.

Resilient Mobility Systems

The rapid shift to working from home has highlighted travel patterns singularly focused on moving large numbers of people to central office districts and employment nodes. Cities will need resilient mobility systems that are flexible and adaptable — systems that can support crosstown travel to a constellation of new employment hubs located in our residential neighbourhoods. Cities like Miami have already partnered with ride-sharing companies to support low ridership areas while covering its more populated lines.

Station buildings will also need to support flexibility and introduce greater redundancy. Their designs can no longer be shrink-wrapped around tight standards for escalator runoffs or turnstile approaches – they must instead allow space for unforeseen shifts in function. Local stations might also be well-equipped to act as community resilience hubs where members of the public can access information and free Wi-Fi, and where broader organizational responses – from muster points and emergency charging stations to distribution nodes for PPE supplies, emergency water/food, and even mobile medical testing – can take place.

Stations along Vancouver and Richmon’s Canada Line are designed with generous public spaces.

Moreover, as working from home becomes more routine, people will look for community and amenity spaces close to where they live. Stations (and surrounding commuter parking lots) offer easy opportunities to implement small-scale retail pop-ups, touch-less grocery ordering and pick-up, farmers markets and online package distribution. There are also longer-term opportunities to repurpose land surrounding stations, which can diversify the revenue streams of transit operators and add to their operational resilience. 

Fostering Social Equity and Public Health

While many of us have questioned if we’ll ever need to commute again, others have not been afforded that privilege. Essential workers continue to rely on public transit. Deliveries have only increased. The intersection of low-wage employment, chronic health conditions, and the continued need to travel during the pandemic has exposed equity-seeking groups to elevated levels of risk. Safe, convenient and gracious urban mobility networks are essential for our collective well-being.

At stations and stops, designers will need to reconsider shelter designs to provide for adequate distancing while improving comfort, lighting and safety. Transit operators will need to introduce vehicles — like Bombardier’s Flexity Outlook — that feature an enclosed cab that provides protection while retrofitting older vehicles; they could also bolster transit-priority lanes that speed up bus traffic on high-ridership routes in equity-seeking communities. Finally, transit authorities will need to re-evaluate fare enforcement regimes and inspection practices.

Electrification programs offer another opportunity to improve health outcomes. Reducing emissions from diesel locomotives will improve the respiratory health conditions that aggravate the impacts of viruses like COVID-19. Operators need to consider improvements to ventilation within stations, in tandem with existing deferred improvements to smoke exhaust systems.

Research Informed by New Behavioural Norms

Right now, we are all driving without a roadmap when it comes to pandemic response. Public health officials are still mapping out the behaviour of the COVID-19 virus and its impacts. Over time, the data will become clearer and decisions will be better informed. As planners, we can already map travel patterns and start modifying service levels in response to passenger needs. At Perkins and Will, we conduct post-occupancy surveys that map passenger behaviour as they move through a station and other transit facilities. We have used this data to identify passengers’ arrivals, queue backups, and where people linger. These surveys will need to be updated to accommodate new requirements for physical distancing with built-in flexibility to quickly respond to pandemics, or other rapidly-evolving situations.

Research into new materials and their performance will also impact station design. Early studies have shown that the coronavirus survives half as long on wood surfaces as it does on stainless steel. This, combined with wood’s embodied carbon and impact on customer well-being, could see its renewed use in a way that ennobles the transit experience. The antibacterial, antiviral and anti-fungal properties of copper and alloys, such as brass and bronze, are well known but rarely implemented. (We should, however, avoid engaging with antimicrobial materials which can do more harm than good). Finally, advanced materials like self-cleaning glass will likely see increased use along areas of high passenger traffic. 

While the current period of disruption has imposed new habits on our lives, it has also opened our eyes to new ways of travelling across cities. We have collectively marvelled at clear blue skies, as the smog has receded over cities from L.A. to New Delhi. Even in the midst of a pandemic, we are cautiously starting to imagine a brighter future.

Ultimately, the COVID-19 crisis will force us to re-evaluate how people travel across our cities – and to design stations and stops that support the new normal. A robust urban mobility system is essential, and if done well, we can get cities that are safer, more resilient and beautiful for decades to come. 

Paul Kulig (OAA, MRAIC) is Principal of Urban Design for Perkins and Will’s Toronto Studio as well as Co-Lead for the firm’s global Urban Design Practice.

Typically a time of optimism, spring is also the most liminal of seasons, when the cold of winter slowly folds into the heat of summer. It is an intermediary period, a threshold. And as we quarantine at home this year in a sort of prolonged COVID-19 hibernation, the excitement of stepping through that threshold into the outdoors has been replaced with an unmistakable ache for many, especially those without access to quality private outdoor space. While a lucky few have backyards to occupy or rural landscapes to roam, many of us in urban centres are having to navigate sub-standard (or non-existent) outdoor realms. 

Just a few months ago, we could never have imagined the importance of these spaces, including that most underappreciated and often underused urban amenity: the balcony. But as those now iconic scenes coming out of Italy have shown, the ability to connect with the outside world and to interface with our neighbours relies on the presence, quality and ingenuity of the platforms we inhabit as well as the views from one balcony to another. In my home country of Canada and elsewhere, however, the occupants of many high-rise towers (not to mention those in basement apartments) aren’t afforded the opportunity to breathe fresh air and to engage with their community at a safe and comfortable distance.

Somewhere along the line, the way we use and value these spaces transformed. Outdoor rooms or courtyards (distinct from gardens) have been employed since antiquity. Historically, these private or semi-private spaces fulfilled critical functions such as cooking, working or sleeping, allowing for both contemplation and socializing. They were considered the most private and most secure spaces in a home. Fast forward to today and our notion of these spaces has deteriorated into an overly idealized one. People romanticize how they will use a balcony or terrace, but seldom do; in turn, such features have devolved into a box-checking exercise for developers and buyers without much consideration to how they could be improved for utility and economy. The sad result is diminutive outdoor space that far too often becomes storage for bikes and boxes. 

Clip-On by Atelier Van Lieshout.

Given our renewed awareness of quality indoor/outdoor access, the opportunity is now upon us to prioritize flexibility, one that allows visual accessibility at a minimum and original new green spaces at the other end of the scale. Enabling designers to shift fluidly between interiors and exteriors, making optimal use of space and vantage points, should be a must. On the more radical end of the spectrum, “parasitic” appendages affixed to the exterior of old buildings — such as the WoZoCo housing complex by MVRDV and Atelier Van Lieshout’s museum-building Clip-On, both from 1997 — have demonstrated bold, transformative ways for rethinking how we can access exteriors. 

Milan’s Bosco Verticale. PHOTO: Plflcn via Wikimedia Commons.

An example of leveraging every opportunity to connect occupants with ample green space — from both a public and a private perspective — is L’arbre blanc in Montpellier, France. In addition to its 113 apartments boasting sizeable cantilevered balconies, the tower, which was completed in 2019 by Sou Fujimoto, Nicolas Laisné, Dimitri Roussel and OXO Architectes, incorporates publicly accessible facilities on both the ground floor and rooftop, promoting the kind of indoor-outdoor living that the residents of Montpellier are known for. On a different scale, the Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) residential towers in Milan have expanded on the functionality of the balcony space to increase the overall air quality of its urban setting. Featuring 900 trees, 5,000 shrubs and 11,000 perennial plants firmly rooted in planters on each tower, the outdoor spaces also serve to accommodate local bird life and regulate building temperature. These two projects are exemplary of something new: the balcony as a public as well as private amenity, an animating element available to urbanites in a considered and deeply inventive manner (L’arbre blanc) or as part of a broad infrastructure providing a public good (Bosco Verticale).

Dramatic balconies at Montpellier’s L’Arbre Blanc.

With a similar ambition to expand the utility of our outdoor spaces, my own firm, SvN in Toronto, is experimenting with terraced balconies in varying shapes and sizes, extending the function of the interiors at our 3803 Dundas Street West residential project for TAS, for instance, to forge a stronger connection with a forested valley edge nearby. The main design focus for the 300 apartments in the complex is the integration of elements usually associated with individual houses, specifically backyards and front porches. The development’s outdoor spaces will include community garden plots for food production and large balconies with planters doubling as birdhouses facing the ravine.

A model of SvN’s 3803 Dundas West in Toronto.

Of course, the realities of living in a northern climate can also pose significant design challenges when it comes to creating effective outdoor spaces. French firm Lacaton & Vassal’s recladding of a 1960s apartment block with an outer skin of insulated winter gardens, however, rose to the task, giving a new face to a stigmatized old building while also affording residents the opportunity, “as in a house, to live outside, while being home,” according to the architects. The project, located in Bordeaux, also demonstrated the ability to completely reinvigorate an aging structure by focusing solely on a renovated exterior. The enclosure of the balconies and the new operability of the facade embody the unique “flexibility as luxury” philosophy embraced by Lacaton & Vassal, which values such versatility over high-end fixtures and finishes. 

re-materializing construction, Lacaton & Vassal
A before and after view of Lacaton & Vassal’s Cité du Grand Parc in Bordeaux.

At SvN, we have similarly assumed an all-season design approach for a condo development at 385 The West Mall, incorporating retractable winter gardens as flexible, liminal spaces that moderate the environment between indoors and out. Heat maps that detected the highest trafficked spaces in an apartment layout revealed opportunities to apply a new type of living space to areas of lower usage. During the winter months, glassed enclosures extend the interior living space out and allow for greenhouse gardening; in the summer, they retract to expand the outdoor footprint and provide new options for residents. The design marks the next evolution in a heritage of three-season balconies in Toronto, following similar solarium-style balconies designed by architects such as Barton Myers and Jerome Markson along Gerrard Street East and in the St. Lawrence neighbourhood.

L'Arbre Blanc, Montpellier, Sou Fujimoto
Montpellier’s L’Arbre Blanc Blends Playful Folly with Public Purpose
Designed by Sou Fujimoto Architects and OXO architectes, the dramatic mixed-use building is iconic architecture with civic ambitions.
A rendering of SvN’s 385 The West Mall.

The prospect for quality outdoor spaces is not limited to balconies, of course. Rethinking parkland gained through development is another opportunity to explore what a future public realm could and should look like. If we live in dense cities, we need to uncover and explore all the flat spaces available to us for outdoor access, giving every individual the ability to connect with the outdoors. 

There is no question that how long we remain in quarantine will significantly impact the way we behave in and feel about our homes, both indoors and out. What we’ve learned from this stay-at-home mandate is that the true value and health of our cities is not solely dependent on spaces of commerce but also on spaces for respite and being. As springtime advances, our collective craving to immerse ourselves in outdoor life will no doubt intensify, but let’s not forget that our individual access to places of respite are not created equal. While some of us can breathe freely outside our doorways, many are confined by restrictive, unimaginative spaces that have not prioritized our psychological need to connect with the outside world. Perhaps there has never been a better time than now to creatively reform our approach to our private outdoor spaces and to reimagine their design and execution as serving a broad public benefit. 

Drew Sinclair is a licensed architect and designer and the Managing Principal at SvN Architects + Planners in Toronto.

Lead image: WoZoCo housing complex by MVRDV.