Will cities learn from their pandemic-inspired urban planning?

ANALYSIS: Cities have adapted public spaces to allow for more and different outdoor activities. The question is whether those changes will stick around when COVID-19 is gone
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Aug 26, 2020
Roadside restaurant seating set up along Yonge Street, in Toronto, on July 25. (Dominic Chan/CP)

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This has been a surprising year to live in Toronto: Cyclists can now ride across a huge swath of the city on the Bloor-Danforth bike lane, a project that’s been sought by bicycle users for decades but ignored for as long, and there are several other, more temporary, bike-lane projects across the city. Toronto has gone all-in on allowing bars and restaurants to use street-parking spaces for patio dining. And a variety of barriers are now slowing motor-vehicle traffic to make roads safer for pedestrians — especially children, who’ve spent a large portion of the year out of school.

If it weren’t for the deadly pandemic that’s still lurking, this would be celebrated as one of the more reformist, even activist, years at Toronto city council in at least a decade. But, if these changes have been largely motivated by the need to adapt to COVID-19, that raises a question: What will cities like Toronto do when the pandemic abates? Will they simply return to giving away public space for low-value uses, such as on-street parking?

Councillor Brad Bradford represents a Toronto ward that is bisected by the new Danforth bike lane and was one of the councillors who voted in favour of the CaféTO program, which has allowed businesses to turn street parking into outdoor dining space. That program, however, is slated to end in November.

“Then those spaces return to parking,” Bradford says. “I’ll be pushing for the program to return next spring and throughout the summer. With all the uncertainty of the pandemic, we’re seeing a lot of people more comfortable out on a patio than indoors, and that’s likely to continue.”

Bradford says he expects it will be easier to convince businesses (and the Business Improvement Areas that act as gatekeepers for a lot of hyper-local policy) to bring CaféTO back now that they’ve seen it in action: “A lot of the fear-mongering that’s associated with these sorts of projects isn’t warranted, and the benefits are real. What I’m hearing, consistently, is people calling for more of these urban interventions.”

What’s clear is that the pandemic has forced cities to think more flexibly about how they use their public space — and for whom.

“When you think about it as really valuable city real estate, it wasn’t working at its full capacity,” says Trevor McIntyre, the global director for place-making at IBI Group, an international planning consulting firm that worked with Toronto to roll out CaféTO quickly. “During peak times, cars were using it, and we’d move a lot of cars. But, during non-peak times, the FedEx trucks and everyone would park in there, but nobody would quite know what they were doing.”

 “What was driving this wasn’t design or even planning,” McIntyre adds. “It was the number of restaurants that were closing or struggling to barely keep their doors open, It literally kept the restaurants open.”

(Both Bradford and McIntyre noted that some businesses initially declined to take part in CaféTO — only to change their minds when they saw their neighbours bringing in desperately needed customers with outdoor drinking and dining space.)

One problem that numerous cities will face as they try to think more imaginatively about how to use public spaces, especially the curbside of major roads, is that few actually have an accessible, systematic database that captures information on how they’re currently using their curbside — a legacy of an era when the most complicated decision councils made about their curbs was “parking” or “no parking.”

New software created by IBI Group could change that: called CurbIQ, it allows cities to visually map out their curb uses, from parking to construction to garbage pickup.

screenshot of CurbIQ software
 CurbIQ has been used in Ontario municipalities such as Barrie and Niagara Falls. (Courtesy of IBI Group)

“People make decisions based on information; if you don’t have the information, how can you make decisions?” says Peter Richards, also at IBI. “Cities actually don’t have this information, and they certainly don’t have it digitally.”

“What gets measured, gets managed,” Richards adds.

CurbIQ has been used in Ontario municipalities such as Barrie and Niagara Falls; so far, neither city has opted to make the mapping data they’ve produced publicly accessible. But Richards says there’s no reason it couldn’t be shared via such popular apps as Google Maps — meaning that motorists would know exactly where they could or could not park, and courier drivers would know where they were or were not allowed to load and unload packages.

But, for now, the technology is primarily being used to help municipalities more quickly and clearly understand the likely effects of changing the rules of their streets.

“We really need to have data to be able to tell cities whether traffic will still flow or whether it will all fall apart,” McIntyre says.

Bradford, who was a city planner before he was elected councillor, says it’s easy to understate how much the thinking at the city has changed, not just among elected officials but also among staff and the public.

“The focus is on hyper-local trips right now,” says Bradford. “Walking or rolling to the butcher, the grocery, the café. We’re not commuting downtown anymore; we’re making these hyper-local trips in our neighbourhoods. And the infrastructure needs to change to reflect that.”

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