A History Lesson

Jessica Broomfield – GEOG/GD 464 – Dr. Cherie Enns

Since January 2020, COVID-19 has swept the globe, and for cities what once defined them has been temporarily put on hold. Cities across the globe are being tested to their limits as citizens have limited engagement with each other in the urban environment. The fabric of the economies of cities is at risk, as it is built on services and creative industries which are built on interactions and knowledge spillover. This collapse in city economies has taken a toll on municipal budgets, and services are reeling from the burden with many fees not being collected for ridership fares on public transport, in recreation centres, rinks and pools etc. Additionally, civic fees that contribute to the majority of municipal revenues such as property fees are being deferred adding to massive gaps in municipal budgets. These combined pressures have cities headed for a financial crisis and ultimately a loss of public trust in municipal governments.

This is not the first time that the world has witnessed the disappearance of funds for public amenities that are based on large tax bases during a crisis. In Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia’s book Tactical Urbanism, the authors refer to the great recession in 2007 as an example of a time when public amenities dwindled as municipal governments ran out of revenue, which forced people to do more with less. They discuss that despite the fact that tax revenues were not increasing, demand for such services and pressure on municipal governments from the public was still growing (Lydon and Garcia). Lydon and Garcia argue that this led to the rise in Tactical Urbanism forcing governments to consider projects that are more nimble and lower-cost to deliver. They quote Karen Thoreson and James H. Svara on the shift to using an approach focused on Tactical Urbanism, “Local governments have had to rethink their approaches to doing the people’s business” (Lydon and Garcia, 73) These approaches during the financial crisis of 2007 included urban farms, pop-up cinemas, beach-bars as well as old shipping containers that were repurposed into pup-up shops (Martin, Micheal, et al). However, there seems to be a trend with these solutions, that they are merely temporary and end up shutting down post-crisis.

In this pandemic ridden time that we are currently living in, there are examples across the globe of how these low-cost temporary approaches to this crisis are being implemented as citizens put pressure on municipal governments to deliver. Across the world, cities are closing down large sections of roads in the city hubs to allow for more space for cyclists and pedestrians. In Montreal, as citizens called for the reopening of parks and public spaces, 300 kilometres of roads were altered to become more friendly to pedestrians and cyclists (Kovac). In Vancouver, the act of closing down streets has come to be known as “Slow Streets,” which includes closing 50 kilometres of roadways for active travel as well as to allow for restaurants to expand patio space (City of Vancouver). Allowing restaurants to expand their patios onto roads is beneficial to businesses as it expedites the permitting process and gives people the room they need to resume some of their normal activities as well as helping restaurants to increase revenue by increasing seating capacity. A similar project in the Czech Republic has been taken undertaken in the form of a “Gastro Safe Zone” where brightly coloured ground markings are used to encourage passersby to keep their distance from outdoor diners (Harrouk).

Other low-cost approaches cities have taken are handwashing stations that have been placed throughout cities including San Francisco (Canales) and Victoria (Vu), as well as being set up in less developed cities like Mogadishu in Somalia (Hussein). Even the simplest changes have been made to reduce the spread of COVID-19 including redesigning benches, as Milan-based architect has done by equipping benches with plexiglass dividers (Myers). 

Whilst these approaches to the pandemic are currently widely accepted and cater to citizens’ pressures, the question remains: what will happen to these innovative changes when we are living in post-pandemic cities? Will it mirror what happened at the tail end of the financial crisis of 2007 where innovative temporary changes disappeared in favour of business-as-usual development. Or can these temporary changes be made more permanent and become normalized? Could some of the solutions put in place today to address COVID-19 become solutions to challenges that have long existed before the pandemic? Could, for example,  public handwashing stations become more permanent so they could benefit the more vulnerable populations such as the poor and homeless who in ‘normal’ times do not have regular access to basic hygiene? One might argue that the pandemic has exacerbated already broken systems. As roads are becoming more and more restricted to cars as cities open up roadways to cyclists, pedestrians and businesses, could municipal governments see this as an opportunity to combat the ever-worsening issue of congestion by making roads more walkable? COVID-19 has undoubtedly created an opportunity to better our cities.  It is important to acknowledge the potential opportunities that these changes provide to build upon in order to address the long term issues post-pandemic,  rather than accepting them simply as solutions to challenges imposed by COVID-19. 

Works Cited

Canales, Katie. “WASH YOUR HANDS: San Francisco Added Public Hand-Washing Stations throughout the City to Help Combat the Spread of Coronavirus. Here’s What They’re like.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 13 Mar. 2020, http://www.businessinsider.com/coronavirus-san-francisco-hand-washing-station-2020-3.

City of Vancouver. “City Shares Plans to Introduce 50 Km of Slow Streets and Use Roadways for Patios.” City of Vancouver, 25 May 2020, vancouver.ca/news-calendar/introducing-50-km-of-slow-streets-and-use-roadways-for-patios.aspx.

Harrouk, Christele. “The Gastro Safe Zone: A Public Space Proposal That Considers Social Distancing Measures.” ArchDaily, ArchDaily, 29 Apr. 2020, http://www.archdaily.com/938599/the-gastro-safe-zone-a-public-space-proposal-respecting-social-distancing-measures.

Hussein, Fardosa. “Somalia Braces for COVID-19 Pandemic.” Action Against Hunger, Action Against Hunger, 8 Apr. 2020, http://www.actionagainsthunger.org/story/somalia-braces-covid-19-pandemic.

Kovac, Adam. “Hundreds of Kilometres of Temporary Bike and Pedestrian Paths Coming to Montreal.” CTV News, CTV News, 16 May 2020, montreal.ctvnews.ca/hundreds-of-kilometres-of-temporary-bike-and-pedestrian-paths-coming-to-montreal-1.4940992.

Lydon, Mike, and Anthony Garcia. Tactical Urbanism: Short-Term Action for Long-Term Change. Island Press, 2015.

Martin, Micheal, et al. “Temporary Urban Solutions Help Us Deal with Crisis — and Can Lead to Radical Shifts in City Space.” The Conversation, The Conversation, 27 May 2020, theconversation.com/temporary-urban-solutions-help-us-deal-with-crisis-and-can-lead-to-radical-shifts-in-city-space-135248.

Myers, Lynne. “’Shield’ Is a Bench to Fight COVID-19 Designed by Antonio Lanzillo & Partners.” Designboom, Designboom, 23 May 2020, http://www.designboom.com/design/shield-bench-to-fight-covid-19-antonio-lanzillo-partners-04-17-2020/.

Vu, Duy. “City Provides Six Hand-Washing Stations throughout Community.” The Victoria Advocate, The Victoria Advocate, 18 Mar. 2020, http://www.victoriaadvocate.com/covid-19/city-provides-six-hand-washing-stations-throughout-community/article_a0217700-6962-11ea-90a1-23e6d48af327.html.

Photos Cited

Chan, Kenneth. Temporarily widened sidewalk on Davie Street. 2020. Daily Hive, https://dailyhive.com/vancouver/vancouver-slow-streets-coronavirus.

Harrouk, Christele. 2020. ArcDaily, https://www.archdaily.com/938599/the-gastro-safe-zone-a-public-space-proposal-respecting-social-distancing-measures

Myers, Lynne. 2020. designboom, https://www.designboom.com/design/shield-bench-to-fight-covid-19-antonio-lanzillo-partners-04-17-2020/.

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