What has a global pandemic taught us about city planning?

Katie Wang
Jun 24, 2020 · 6 min read
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Image courtesy of National Post

I think it goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives and the way we live. From triggering worldwide public health and economic crises, shifting our work and schooling online, and to questioning how our systems function to support those living in it. The pandemic has hit major cities like Wuhan, Milan, New York City, Madrid, and countless others around the world. Here’s my attempt at analyzing three main ideas in trying to understand the factors behind this epidemic:

  1. how density has affected the spread of the virus,
  2. how our city layouts and systems make different communities more or less vulnerable to the virus,
  3. and what this pandemic has taught us about city building for the future.

How has density affected the spread of COVID-19?

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Toronto population density growth map (image courtesy of Statistics Canada)

There’s a simple correlation between density and disease spread: more people = more paths for a virus to spread. It’s an unfortunate reality that the same clustering within cities that inspires innovation and productivity can also be an excellent propagator of disease.

Density itself, however, isn’t necessarily the only factor affecting the virus’ spread. COVID-19 has hit hard in many types of places, ranging from popular touristy cities like New York and London, to industrial cities like Wuhan and Northern Italy, and even in smaller communities where the virus targeted nursing homes and homeless populations. Not only that, data makes it clear that density alone does not necessarily make cities susceptible, but the specific type of density

How have city plans made certain communities more vulnerable to the virus?

There is, unfortunately, a huge difference between “rich dense places” (where people have safe shelters, the ability to work remotely, and have necessities delivered to them) and “poor dense places” (where people are pushed out onto the streets and into crowded areas where infection is uninhibited). Amidst all the overwhelming numbers, statistics and news that are broadcasted daily, it’s easy to forget about how certain groups are suffering more or less because of the historical implications of our urban planning.

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Extreme poverty meets extreme wealth in Mumbai (image courtesy of Business Insider)

In the past, cities have been systematically divided to separate certain groups of people with varying access to government resources. A notable American example is redlining: where predominantly black neighbourhoods were marked off, allowing for house discrimination by the federal government, denying services and selectively change prices. Other examples of restrictive zoning also exist in Canada, dividing affluent neighbourhoods from less-fortunate neighbourhoods. Along with these restrictive zoning practices, strategic urban design further perpetuates a cycle in which urban developers invest in richer neighbourhoods, which inevitably continue to become richer, and vice versa. David Hulchanski, a University of Toronto professor specializing in social policy and urban planning, developed a project illustrating the socioeconomic polarization that divides Toronto into 3 different “cities”. Each are defined by their general income levels and their specific location within the city. Poorer, marginalized neighbourhoods don’t have access to the same community centres, open spaces, parks, new infrastructure, and transportation services as richer neighbourhoods, feeding into a never-ending cycle that doesn’t provide an opportunity to those who need it.

As a result, these systems have been especially harmful for less-affluent families during the coronavirus crisis. It’s not actually the most dense areas of cities being the most affected, but rather the poor, overcrowded, and underfunded areas lacking infrastructure services and open spaces. Poorer families may lack personal protective equipment and access to basic services like water, sanitation, waste collection, health care services. Many work precarious jobs, struggle to put food on the table, and are hit hardest by the economic recession, making them most vulnerable to infection and other struggles from the pandemic.

What has the pandemic taught us about city building for the future?

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Image courtesy of CP24

The coronavirus crisis has raised concerns for designing for possible future pandemics and addressing the root issues that make infectious diseases dangerous and uncontrollable. The COVID-19 outbreak is not an anomaly, and similar infection disease outbreaks are bound to occur in the future.

  1. The pandemic has taught us the importance of government support and action. Yes, it has highlighted the uncomfortable reality about the fragility of our global economy, lack of public health preparedness, and poor social security. However, it has also presented valuable lessons on the necessity of support for communities most disproportionately and directly affected. We’ve discussed and brushed over these issues for decades, but the virus itself (in an unfortunate way) has emphasized an important perspective that calls for change. The government’s role in addressing wealth inequality and poverty has always been controversial, however, more supportive policies must be implemented to combat systemic inequality within our cities. Some examples include a more progressive tax system, financial assistance, expanding infrastructure, making housing more affordable, and investing in accessible public services such as healthcare and education.
  2. The pandemic has taught us the importance of preparation. The pandemic has illustrated the need for building stronger public health systems, more investing and funding in health care, and addressing the underlying inequalities that target vulnerable people. Looking at how Canada, the U.S., and other countries around the world dealt with the pandemic: it’s clear that our responses were far from the definition of “success”. Travel bans, physical distancing guidelines, widespread testing, and city lockdowns should have been enacted much earlier to prevent global spread. The refusal to take the disease seriously (on an individual and political level) delayed action and missed the opportunity to slow the spread drastically. From a city planning lens, densification’s virus-spreading powers has created a challenge: questioning urbanization management and rethinking density management for the future (e.g. decentralizing essential services, better managing of supplies, and considering the connectivity of public transport).
  3. And lastly, the pandemic has taught us the importance of connectivity. After countless Zoom calls, group FaceTimes with my friends, and being holed up in my bedroom, I’ve never valued connection more. While I obviously have enormous privilege to be writing this with internet from the comfort of my own home, the innate need for connection (in all its forms) raises questions about how interesting questions. Will school and working from home become a new normal? How does a shift in online dependency affect downtowns that rely on office building clusters, high employee density, and the parallels between planning policy and market necessity? In terms of reopening, opening urban centres with wider bike lanes and sidewalks is a popular wish in Canadian cities. Allowing people to use alternate forms of transportation while still physically distancing would be a transformative step to a more sustainable and eco-friendly city for the future, while also considering the possibility for future pandemics.

While the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have started a battle for and against urban density, these concerns should be sparking a push for better planning and policy, rather than causing backlash against densification.

This, hopefully, can act as a wakeup call to address harmful inequalities and improve our cities. As Toronto urban designer Ken Greenberg said, “The solution is not density at any cost, but density done right.”

Katie Wang is the 2020–2021 Director of Public Relations of the 1UP Toronto program, powered by Urban Minds.

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