One step at a time

The COVID-19 pandemic casts our cities in a new light.

Walkability has become a critical issue in the face of the coronavirus.

The novel coronavirus has shed new light on many aspects of urban living. The importance of balconies has come into focus as residents use them for singalongs and quick visits with neighbours. Front windows have become pop-up art galleries to amuse passing pedestrians. These sorts of insights have big implications for how cities get planned and built. Consider something as basic as sidewalks. They have gone from something we take for granted to vital pieces of infrastructure.

As we isolate at home, we are still encouraged to get out for a walk. The health benefits of walking are well-known but it has taken on new urgency. Going for a stroll is no longer a laidback pastime. It is now vital to maintaining mental and physical well-being. The need to stretch our legs and exercise our brains has never been felt by so many of us. 

One consequence is that our sidewalks can’t always handle the demand. The City of Calgary took quick action on this front: closing some lanes on select roads to cars. (The City also disabled several of the “beg buttons” pedestrians use to request a walk signal.) The road closures let walkers and cyclists and skateboarders maintain proper distance. It’s a move being considered by other cities. It’s only going to become more pressing now that parks are closed and the weather is set to warm up.

It’s all surreal, but it offers a chance to think about cities in a new light.  The urban planner Brent Toderian notes that most sidewalks are 1.5 metres wide. This means two people practising social distancing can’t walk side-by-side. For Toderian, it also reveals that cities aren’t made for pedestrians. It’s also worth noting that when cities improve streetscapes, one of the first tasks is to widen sidewalks. 

These features inform Walk Score, which evaluates the walkability of North American communities. The site takes into account nearby amenities and the chance of running errands on foot. During this pandemic shops, businesses and restaurants were forced to close, but they will return as measures of walkability. 

It’s another example of how these strange times have turned cities into a kind of laboratory. The need to maintain physical distance means new attention is being paid to public space. No one is suggesting this is a good thing. The costs of the pandemic are incalculable, but it’s hard to imagine anyone taking walkability for granted once it passes.

April 9th, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic casts our cities in a new light.