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Public health experts should be at the urban design table: Consultant

Don Procter
Public health experts should be at the urban design table: Consultant

Dense cities are not Petri dishes that spread the coronavirus, but the pandemic is an opportunity to rethink city design and planning models to better prepare for future crises.

That is the message from Ken Greenberg, principal of Greenberg Consultants, an urban design planning firm based in Toronto.

Greenberg, a speaker at a webinar seminar recently on the future of urban density presented by the Urban Land Institute, told the Daily Commercial News that urban critics are quick to blame density as for why New York City is facing dire circumstances in the COVID-19 pandemic.

But turning back to low-density models of urban sprawl — as some critics espouse — is not a solution. The former director of urban design and architecture for the City of Toronto says a shift in city design and planning agendas to prioritize such issues as resiliency, redundancy and social capital in community and building plans are worthy objectives to achieving “good density” in cities like Toronto.

Buildings and neighbourhoods need designs that are easily adaptable during times of crisis such as the pandemic, or climate-based disasters, for alternative uses, Greenberg says.

He adds bringing public health experts to the urban design table should be on city planning agendas in the future because health experts can provide invaluable advice on crisis planning and they can offer a fresh perspective on neighbourhood design features that promote physical and mental well-being.

Greenberg, who has received numerous urban design and planning awards in North America and abroad, hopes the pandemic pushes people in the public and private sectors to collaborate across departmental lines.

He adds taking advantage of digital technology to allow, for example, distance learning and off-site work has proved essential in the current crisis and will continue to grow and impact the framework of the urban plan.

To go back to “normal” after the crisis is over would be a mistake and Greenberg believes people who think the world won’t see change “are deluding themselves.”

On the construction front, he says the pandemic could help push the industry to improve sanitation standards on sites.

Cherise Burda, executive director of the City Building Institute (CBI) at Ryerson University, adds that COVID-19 could provide gravitas for a new breed of factory construction models.

She says modular construction in climate-controlled settings not only meets health and safety standards for workers, the types of buildings it produces can broaden the market for “medium and gentle density” developments which are missing in Toronto now.

Burda says Toronto is too used to “building tall” in isolated inner-city neighbourhoods and “building sprawl” in suburbia. Missing from that scenario is everything in between. A movement to midrise developments is a case in point.

Greenberg concurs.

“The city has been overdeveloping a very small part of the city’s footprint (primarily in downtown wards) at the expense of vast areas which could benefit from density,” he says.

Furthermore, the city of Toronto has “become overly stingy” in providing the social infrastructure that defines “good density.”

Burda says the CBI was about to release a report called Density Done Right when COVID-19 hit Toronto. Now expected to be published this month, the report covers an array of urban design elements that the fast-growing city should take seriously.

Crucial, Greenberg points out, are communities comprised of a mixed use of services and housing types for a broad age spectrum of people.

“I think we have often completely missed on the social infrastructure that makes dense places livable — the schools, the daycares, the community centres and the health care facilities,” he says.

Also speaking at the seminar was Murtaza Haider, a professor at Ryerson University, who says while density is preferable to sprawl, it has its limits. A case in point is when pent-up demand for residential units in core areas of a city like Toronto result in unaffordable housing for the masses.

Traffic and transit congestion is another sign that density has passed its benefits, he says.

He suggests rethinking suburbs as places that are not only pedestrian-friendly with all the needs of an inner-city neighbourhood met but also places that offer employment.

Big changes won’t happen overnight, however.

“The coronavirus will allow us to think about our physical space…and allow us to start putting in smaller interventions towards the bigger goal of redundancy and resilience that we want in our cities,” says Haider.

Greenberg says for centuries cities have been demonized during public health crises. Plagues during the Middle Ages in Europe are a case in point.

In the early 20th century, city and social planners in North America postulated that spreading out living space through low density planning models was healthy but planners today realize that undermines sustainable planning practices, he says.

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