In Case You Missed It… Spring Talk #2 – Cities as Post-Covid Accelerators of Resilient, Inclusive Communities

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Ken Greenberg, urban designer, active city-building advocate, author and teacher, is the former Director of Urban Design and Architecture for the City of Toronto. He gave an information-packed presentation that was overflowing with thought-provoking ideas. But that is what you would expect from someone who is still helping to shape the policies, community living and texture of the GTA. Ken was instrumental in creating more livable green space within the city, such as the Bentway under the Gardiner Expressway.

I volunteered to summarize this presentation as I co-facilitate “The Future of Cities” with Andris Rubenis. These short notes are a poor replacement for the visuals and data that Ken shared with the group, as well as the rich Q&A that took place after the presentation. These are some highlights:

General

  • Great cities are the crucibles where solutions can be found to problems, and we have some substantial ones to work on, particularly climate.
  • Cities already house 50% of the world’s population. In the aftermath of the COVID pandemic, it is more important that we create livable cities that are safe, multi-use, accessible and can accommodate a diverse population.
  • 21% of Canada’s population lives in the Golden Horseshow (GTA).
  • The pandemic exposed the good and the bad. Community spirit and green space helped many people survive the pandemic. Overcrowding in some city areas led to the rapid spread of infections.

Post pandemic solution

This is not a multiple choice; you have to address them all – densification, growth and affordability, resilience, inclusivity. In order to create a vibrant livable GTA that will be home to the brain-trusts that will help solve the coming crises, we need to do the following:

  • Wean ourselves off auto-dependence
  • Revive the commons
  • Develop cities as part of nature

Wean ourselves off auto-dependence

  • Since 1943, city development has been shaped by the automobile.
  • Our resulting sedentary lifestyle is affecting our health. This was documented by Toronto’s Medical Officer pre-pandemic. There is a high correlation between sedentary, automobile-centric neighbourhoods and chronic (and infectious) diseases including diabetes.
  • The suburbs that were built around the highway networks are generally isolated, using cars to go from one place to another. Families live parallel rather than the intersecting lives that are part of a community.
  • This led to two paradigms – the world where everything is isolated and car-dependent. And the other, returning to a mixed-use model where we commute more actively via walking and biking. We have to create more bike- and pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods.
  • The pandemic taught us we need to be close to nature, living within caring and enriching communities.

Revival of the commons

  • We need to work on the right kind of mixed-use densification where we create community. “It’s not just how dense you make it – it is how you make it dense.”
  • During the pandemic, strong multi-generational community sharing was just as important to recovery as access to local green areas.
  • We need to address the needs of all ages, all physical abilities from young children to the aging population to people with different levels of mobility, in close proximity to where they live, making these spaces available.
  • One of the real challenges we’re facing is the way cyberspace is eating into real spaces. We want to overcome the isolating effects of cyberspace by creating collaborative spaces that encourage casual conversations and a strong sense of community.
  • Technologies now exist that allow planners to engage diverse communities at the planning stage. They can have discussions ranging from the visual representation for the pedestrian at ground level, debate on the optimal time for crosswalk signals, to support all levels of mobility, down to the support of the trees and shrubs planted on the pavements.

Cities as part of nature

  • Recent growth has been a consumer society completely out of control. We are seeing a generational shift to a sharing society.
  • The goal is to reduce the effects of climate change and create solutions.
  • We can tap into the healing power of nature – as we did during the pandemic, “growing more urban and more green at the same time.”
  • New developments are now making environmental areas central to their marketing plans instead of an afterthought.
  • Develop renewal projects around Toronto that are holistic, addressing the present and future issues raised by climate, while nurturing the community and neighbourhood.
  • Support the existing greenbelt.
  • We cannot block the waterways. We need creek-to-creek and green system connections.

We have the opportunity to help design the Golden Horseshoe into the kind of city that attracts and keeps great talent from cradle to grave. Our diverse gene pool is our greatest natural resource. Let’s all actively participate in that mission.

                                                        Karena de Souza