Cities are for people, not for cars. That’s been the argument made by city planners for decades. It’s a philosophy embraced more in Europe than in North America, largely due to the layout of centuries-old European cities versus the auto-centric planning evident on this side of the Atlantic.
However, bowing to the needs of cars in North American cities is on the wane. It’s true that COVID-19 has created new solutions for the way people work, commute and enjoy their living spaces. Nevertheless, many of these changes were already underway in Canada’s urban centres and have been expedited by COVID-19.
Once COVID vaccines become widely available in Canada sometime in mid-2021, urban core office space utilization will certainly increase from levels currently estimated by credible sources as low as five per cent in Toronto. In the meantime, commercial developers, owners and landlords with innovative outlooks are reassessing future demands for downtown office and commercial space, not just in Canada but around the world.
This reassessment may already be underway. A recent survey released by global accounting firm Deloitte indicates that between April and September of this year, office space construction in London, U.K. had declined 50 per cent versus the previous six months.
According to Deloitte’s survey of landlords, 88 per cent felt working from home will reduce tenant space demands by as much as 20 per cent in the future. Of course, the U.K.’s economic picture is cloudier than most, due to recent Brexit concerns. However, what is interesting in the Deloitte report is that more than two-thirds of construction projects underway are not new builds but involve refurbishment of existing building stock.
Similarly, the pandemic is giving municipalities themselves an opportunity to take a breath and reassess their urban planning priorities. How much will downtowns change over the long-term as a result?
One issue at play is land usage, particularly in terms of parking space for cars.
In Toronto, for example, about 230 million square feet of building space has been added since 1978. The city, like many others in the country, has tried to keep pace with the resultant increased demand for parking spaces by mandating minimums for new developments. Yet Toronto’s rapid growth has sucked up much of the available land, resulting in a 40 per cent decline in surface parking area over the same period. What underground parking exists, either in commercial buildings or today’s ubiquitous residential towers, is both expensive to build or limited.
Urban planning has previously assumed that each car has a parking spot at home, plus three or four other spots waiting for it somewhere at work or for shopping. That’s an unsustainable allocation of space, say urban visionaries. Continuing to mandate significant space for car parking conflicts with urban planners. They see the pandemic as an opportunity to rethink Canada’s cities.
At the same time, the pandemic has demonstrated that cooped-up urban dwellers really enjoy their outdoor space. Cities have responded by restricting lanes for traffic and opening pedestrian malls, creating new bike lanes and allowing patios on sidewalks. It’s reinforcing what Ottawa’s National Capital Commission already learned from past experience; when you close streets to cars, people will come in huge numbers on foot or on bikes.
This gives rise to what planners are calling “the 15-minute city,” urban living where all daily needs are within a quarter hour of home by foot or bicycle. Turning large cities into a series of walkable urban villages, complete with neighbourhood stores, restaurants, bike lanes and green spaces, would reduce the need for mandated car parking, either on streets or in parking lots.
As working from home becomes the norm, the number of commuters travelling to urban cores will likely remain lower than previous levels. Coupled with commitments from governments to lower GHG and carbon emissions over the next several decades, there is a strong argument for land use strategies that dramatically change long-held assumptions about cars.
John Bleasby is a Coldwater, Ont.-based freelance writer. Send comments and Inside Innovation column ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.