Rebuilding Post-Pandemic Cities: A look back at 1UP Conference 2021

Alex Smiciklas
May 2 · 6 min read

By: Alexander Gambin, RUaPlanner team member & guest contributor

It has been slightly over a year since Justin Trudeau made an announcement regarding the avoidance of non-essential travel outside of Canada, while the Province of Ontario entered its first state of emergency. In the matter of mere seconds following these statements, it felt as if the world had stopped as people were ordered to stay home in order to curb the spread of COVID-19. Educational classes moved to an online platform, social gatherings with friends and family were postponed or cancelled, and the vibrant streets that were once filled with people shopping or interacting with each other had emptied. The daily routines that many of us had been accustomed to essentially disappeared as we entered uncertain times brought forth by the pandemic. Through this reflection I have tried to recall what life was like before people were required to wear masks and socially distance. Ironically, one of the last memories that I had of pre-pandemic life came as a volunteer of the 2020 1UP Conference held just days before these big announcements. The event had been a huge success with students from schools across the GTA having participated in discussions and activities that were focused around urbanism. So, it felt bittersweet when I was asked to volunteer again for the conference this year knowing that I had taken for granted that experience. On one hand I was excited for what this year’s panel had in store, and on the other, I knew how difficult it would be to host an engaging seminar online, having spent countless hours on Zoom and Team meetings as a student.

Completing a design challenge at the 2020 1UP Conference (that’s me leading the activity in the center!)

Both 2020 and 2021 have brought significant adjustments to our lives that no one could have predicted or imagined, and encapsulating these adjustments and organizing the 2021 1UP Conference into a single theme proved to be challenging. Not even the brief period of time when the irrational demand for toilet paper far exceeded supply could summarize how chaotic the year had been. With restrictions still in place that limited in-person gatherings, a virtual event was held with both presentations and panel discussions focused on rebuilding our cities. It seemed fitting that the discussions should be centered around a rebuild theme, as it reflected on how our experiences with Covid-19 may be more appropriately defined as a period of reflection, where people could question their values and reconsider what was truly important to them. Both 2020 and 2021 brought equity issues to the forefront of discussions, as were the need for additional public spaces and services to help support individuals who were, and continue to be, burdened by the pandemic. Therefore, building post-pandemic cities will require resilience in urban centers to accommodate unique demands that the pandemic uncovered.

Empty streets and shops within Toronto due to the lockdown (Denette, 2020)

One of the most prominent challenges that the pandemic posed for urban centres was the need for public space. In response to the lockdowns, greater importance has been placed on using existing public infrastructure for both social interactions and physical exercise. To analyze how public spaces have been transformed over the pandemic, Ryerson planning student Stefphon Nibbs sat down with four panelists (Jackie Hamilton, Victor Perez- Amado, Krista Nightengale, and Josh Fullan) and led a discussion on how Covid-19 has reignited the general public’s love affair with open spaces. Through their dialogue, the panelists identified that there have been surges in the number of visitors to parks, as individuals explore different open spaces across the City. Visitation in conservation areas alone have risen 30 % and places such as Grange Park, located behind the Art Gallery of Ontario, have served as popular destinations for picnics during the pandemic. As the population grows and demand for outdoor services increases, it is expected that the City of Toronto will require additional park space and that improvements be made to local parks. The panelists raised several recommendations as to how these parks should be planned for in the future, including that they be well connected, provide safe spaces for all demographics, and enable various activities to occur. In addition, funding should be shifted towards other areas of the community where need be. As part of efforts to promote healthy lifestyles while also maintaining physical distancing, cities across North America have allowed pedestrians to reclaim their built environment. Innovative examples of such adaptations include the closing of major roads, such Lakeshore Boulevard East, through the City of Toronto’s ActiveTO program, and closing parking lots in Dallas, Texas that were repurposed to host markets. As planners, architects, policy makers and urban designers all come together to build a City in the face of a pandemic, it is these innovative solutions that we may wish to adopt on a more permanent basis in order to design more complete and vibrant communities.

Sections of Lakeshore Boulevard have been closed to vehicular traffic to allow pedestrians and cyclists to use the street. (Penalosa, 2020)

Planning for both pandemic and post-pandemic cities requires much more than innovation as mentioned during the individual presentations; it requires both flexibility and collaboration. James Pang, a part investor in the popular restaurant chain, Konjiki Ramen, notes that it is flexible programs like CaféTO that have enabled restaurants within the City to extend outdoor dining areas onto the lane or sidewalk of select roads. By providing such programs and collaborating with local business owners and local Business Improvement Associations (BIA), the City of Toronto has managed to create vibrant streetscapes filled with a socially distant public, while also offering local businesses an economic lifeline. This example demonstrates that collaborative efforts are essential to moving forward and rebuilding our cities. To become more successful in designing Cities for everyone, city builders in power should extend their resources out towards the communities that they serve. Guest presenter, Selena Martinez’s work with the Indigenous Design Collaborative and Design Empowerment Phoenix is an example of how community input can lead to more inclusive and equitable design by empowering individuals who do not otherwise have access to resources. Our Cities should be a mosaic of the people that compose them.

Rendering of an inclusive community in South Phoenix taken from Selena Martinez’s presentation (Martinez, 2019)

Most importantly, as city builders and planners, we should be reminded by Sean Hertel’s words that the solutions to planning for life after the pandemic begins with questions that spark further conversation and thought. If there was any profession that was equipped to deal with uncertainty it would be planners, as they regularly deal with planning for the future.

Thank you to the 1UP, Urban Minds and RUaPlanner team members that spent countless hours working towards creating such an engaging conference, and to the guest speakers who agreed to participate and share their thoughts with us. Without your dedication and support, organizing such an event could not be possible. To the participants who joined us for the conference, we thank you for your interest and look forward to seeing you at future events.

To view the recording of our conference, click here.

Urban Minds

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