The post-pandemic future: How Covid got city builders thinking
Pandemics have always changed the world. The Black Death wiped out a third of the population of Europe, leading to the end of feudalism and the rise of nation states. The 1918 Spanish flu was the devastating catalyst for the creation of centralized public health care systems across the globe, including the first federal department of health in Canada. In North America, even as it claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, HIV/AIDS transformed sexual behaviour and arguably helped advance the rights of the LGBTQ community.
Covid-19 began reshaping the world before most of us even knew its name. Within months of the first reported case in Canada, we entered a strange and sudden suspended animation, with every aspect of our lives immediately altered, paused or diminished. For many of us, this limbo was doubly terrifying, characterized by economic catastrophe, a perplexing, fast-moving illness, and death. At times, it felt like we’d all been forcibly expelled from the planet in our own semi-private, perpetually orbiting space capsules, with a murderous alien life form lurking onboard.
The pandemic revealed and reinforced the inequities that plague our society. In Toronto, as elsewhere, the virus disproportionately affected the vulnerable and marginalized. People who were already struggling—the aged, the mentally ill, the homeless—were further cut off, further imperilled. Cities were hardest hit, and infection rates spiked in Toronto’s poorest postal codes. Just as some of us were posting sourdough pics to Instagram, others found themselves in bread lines for the first time. By early June, unemployment in Canada hit a staggering 13.7 per cent—the highest it’s been since the Great Depression.
But as with other historical disasters and emergencies, we learned again that when we are tested, our instinct is not to turn against one another but instead to come together. In an unprecedented surge of collective action (and, yes, admittedly, out of a great deal of fear), we did what none of us had ever done before: we abandoned our regular identities and routines in the name of protecting our fellow human beings. And without those familiar landmarks and milestones, in search of comfort and care, we adapted.
If there’s one thing the pandemic taught us, it’s that seismic change can happen extremely quickly. Things we’re repeatedly told must take an impossibly long time, like government reform or medical progress, can, in fact, happen overnight. It normally takes a decade to develop a vaccine, but Canadian researchers got $30 million in an effort to create one in a year. The Ford government may have ditched Ontario’s basic income pilot project, but by late March, Trudeau had introduced an emergency response benefit that showed just how well a UBI could work. Parking lots were converted into affordable housing, and homeless people were moved into hotels. As traffic and industry stalled, and carbon emissions fell precipitously, the promise of a fossil fuel phase-out became tantalizingly tangible. It was one of the many paradoxes of the pandemic: there we were, stuck in our homes, but outside, the world was transforming at a dizzying rate.
As the city nervously opened up again—as of this writing, Toronto is just entering Stage 3—and we returned to the security of our routines, as altered as they may have been, we realized we couldn’t go back to where we were before. Our sacrifices couldn’t be squandered. With so much inequity now exposed, with our political and economic infrastructure revealed to be so fragile and flawed, couldn’t we, in rebuilding that infrastructure, redesign it to be more equitable, sustainable, affordable and efficient? The pandemic wiped away so many things we took for granted. Maybe, when it finally passes, we could reinstate only the good parts. The hard part, though, is figuring out what to keep. What should our post-pandemic city look like?
The experts and thinkers in this package have a pretty good idea, as well as some pretty good ideas about how we might get there. Some, like UHN CEO Kevin Smith, geriatrician Samir Sinha and city councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, argue for the radical reform of existing systems (hospitals, long-term care homes and street design, respectively); others envision whole new ways of living: among them, Housing Secretariat executive director Abigail Bond, who endorses modular housing to combat homelessness, and FoodShare’s Paul Taylor, who wants to transform Toronto’s golf courses into urban farms. The changes we experienced during lockdown may have been provisional, but if we’re going to avert future catastrophes—economic collapse, climate change, even more zoonotic viruses—we need to make sure that the best of these transformations endure.
Uncertainty has defined this pandemic. Nobody knows when or how it will end, or the long-term effects it will have on our lives. Across the border, the number of cases continues to climb. A second wave of infection is very likely—we may already be grappling with one by the time you read this. The money that government is spending is emergency funding, and it’s still unclear what shape an ongoing stimulus will take, and how, eventually, we will pay for it. With the future even more mysterious than it normally is, and the present so unlike the past, we’ve been forced into a more meditative existence. Forced to live more fully in each moment, no matter how frightening, strange or monotonous that moment may be. In the end, we have to do the only work we can do—the work that’s right in front of us.