City life after the virus

Public space will be under the microscope when the pandemic eases.

No one knows what daily life will look like when the current pandemic eases. But one thing is certain: cities are going to become vast laboratories in the post-COVID world.

Already, streets and sidewalks have become areas of focus and contention. As social distancing puts a premium on physical space, it’s clear that the public realm is lacking. Sidewalks are not wide enough. Parks get packed as the weather improves. 

Some cities have closed streets to traffic and expanded cycle networks. The Lithuanian city of Vilnius is giving over public space to restaurants so their patios can accommodate social distancing. These are temporary measures but many people want them to be made permanent. Whatever their fate, these innovations serve as experiments in the public realm.

What if people demand wider sidewalks, better amenities for pedestrians and expanded opportunities for bicycles when this is all over? It will be interesting to watch. But in a way, this is not new information. We have long known that walkability relates to desirability. People want to live, work and play in their neighbourhoods. They want restaurants, shops and other amenities close to home. Those desires will get more pressing if more people are working from home. 

Even in the midst of the pandemic, the City of Calgary is discussing ways to invest in established areas. Improving the public realm would make these areas more appealing to residents and developers. Some of the money would be spent on improving utilities. This would remove some of the uncertainty faced by developers who don’t always know what they will find when they start digging.

The City is proposing to invest $35 million in the process. Naturally, it’s a topic of debate at city council, but the plan is in line 
with the Municipal Development Plan. That document guides planning in the city and seeks to increase the number of people living in established areas. The City is approaching the task with its Main Streets program. The logic is that central streets will serve as public meeting spaces in established communities. Before the pandemic, construction was set to begin on three projects this spring.

It remains to be seen if the pandemic makes it harder to attract new residents to established areas. But giving people room to spread out is a good place to start if you want them to move in.

May 21st, 2020
Updated: May 25th, 2020

The sidewalk is the next urban frontier.