Former chief city planner of Toronto Jennifer Keesmaat made the case via webinar recently that city builders should react to the COVID-19 pandemic by rejecting the hegemony of the automobile and reinventing cities as people places.
The call is urgent and timely, Keesmat told online participants in a May 19 Urban Land Institute presentation titled Density Under Fire — COVID-19 and New Directions for City Neighbourhoods, Streets and Transit.
Some commentators are making the case that dense urban environments facilitate the spread of viruses and thus must be limited, Keesmaat noted, but they are wrong, she argued — what is needed is not less density but “good density.”
“We were being told to batten down the hatches,” Keesmaat said, but then studies began to arrive showing that Singapore, Seoul and other dense cities were faring much better at resisting infections than New York City.
“We have learned enough over the past 10 weeks to know that density will be part of the solution in the future.”
Since governments began to take emergency measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 and active mobility thoroughfares began to emerge in cities like Milan and now Toronto, the world is beginning to imagine urban areas where cars no longer dominate, said Keesmaat, now the CEO of The Keesmaat Group. Instead, planners will aim to create urban spaces where pedestrians, cyclists and perhaps scooter users will be given priority access to outdoor spaces.
With more self-contained communities, said Keesmaat, the days where families in remote suburbs pile into cars and drive to malls to do their shopping might be minimized, thus heralding the rebirth of main streets.
If you look at the data, it is 10 months of the year you can cycle in this city,
— Jennifer Keesmaat
The Keesmaat Group
It was not lost on her, she said, that Ontario Premier Doug Ford first allowed retail outlets with street entrances to open while keeping the malls closed.
She doesn’t mind if the malls stay closed a little longer to give people a little extra time to get used to main street retail, Keesmaat said.
“Main street caught a break,” she remarked.
First, Keesmaat said, she had to dispense with the seemingly intuitive argument that more density necessarily means more contagion. Research is showing that it is not density per se that helps the virus spread but rather factors such as poor pre-pandemic public health system preparedness, poor adherence to lockdown and untimely enactment of policies.
“Berlin is a good example of this,” Keesmaat remarked. “And south of the border this was not the case.”
Other negative factors have included facilities with shared spaces and surfaces such as long-term-care homes and food-processing plants. The vast majority of COVID-19 cases have been spread indoors, Keesmaat noted.
City planners are now contemplating how cities will graduate to the next, in-between phase of managing pandemics and also trying to determine what the long-term new normal will be, the planner explained. The middle phase will include new operational measures to reorganize access to city spaces such as streets, sidewalks and patios as sectors open back up incrementally, and then in the longer term what’s required, Keesmaat said, are plans for neighbourhood-scaled design, decarbonized cities, new housing models and a focus on the bicycle as a foundational mode of transportation.
The transition away from car-centred suburbs to “better density” will result in better health outcomes, with fewer cases of diabetes, obesity, heart ailments and arthritis, Keesmaat argued. Striving for the “ecological restoration” of the city challenges the “oil paradigm” through a whole-earth approach, she said.
After her presentation, Keesmaat was paired with Christopher Wein, COO of Lanterra Developments and president of Lanterra Construction Management, in a panel discussion. The two stressed that active mobility in a neighbourhood-sized environment has to be complemented by a comprehensive, well-funded transit system. Active transportation could combine with subways and other transit as well as autonomous vehicles to provide the mobility city dwellers will require all four seasons, Wein suggested.
Keesmaat, an admitted avid cyclist, suggested, “If you look at the data, it is 10 months of the year you can cycle in this city.
“Inactivity is to our generation what smoking was to our parents’ generation,” she added.
Follow the author on Twitter @DonWall_DCN.