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COVID-19 has transformed public spaces, but many cities have withdrawn

Customers have lunch at the patio at Mezes on the Danforth in Toronto on June 11, 2021.Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

As cities scramble to combat multiple crises in the early months of COVID-19, the growing mantra for a post-pandemic future became “rehabilitate better.”

Instead of just getting through the pandemic and getting back to normal, many people should say this should be a game changer to create more livable cities. Mayors around the world answered the call and took bold steps to transform their communities.

In Canada, road safety advocates pointed to the lack of traffic and said this is an obvious moment to expand biking and hiking trails. Businesses called for converting unused parking spaces into terraces. And park advocates, noting that these urban green spaces were de facto backyards for millions of Canadians, called for new rules for their use.

While some of this was happening, lofty ideas were slow to materialize. The experience here has been more hesitant – and less enduring – than in some countries.

In a number of cities, measures related to the pandemic have been explicitly temporary, a way of surviving COVID rather than trying to change the status quo. In others, even popular ideas have been allowed to wither and die in the face of complaints from local residents who don’t appreciate them.

The Build Back Better slogan seems increasingly empty to critics.

Taneen Rudyk, president of the Association of Canadian Communities, doesn’t believe the criticism. She notes that cities in some other countries have more resources, and she argues that the community leaders closest to voters have been able to respond creatively and quickly to their needs.

COVID has been something of a forced experiment for cities, and there were many opportunities for change in the first year of the pandemic.

Paris created more than 100 “school streets” with no traffic and lots of greenery. Bogota expanded its popular “Ciclovia” program, opening wide streets to people who travel on foot or by bike. Tallinn transformed much of its downtown area into open-air restaurants and bars.

In Canada, however, few urban dwellers can see evidence of radical changes in the place where they live.

Brent Toderian, city adviser and former planning director for Vancouver, won’t characterize the past few years as a missed opportunity – to argue that such design is crass given the toll COVID has taken – but says executives had a responsibility to act more decisively.

“Canadian cities were very slow and quite shy,” he said. “The good news is that there is still time. … There is still time to make other decisions.”

open roads

Like a number of cities early in the pandemic, Winnipeg sought to create spaces where residents could be outside at a safe distance. Unlike many others, the city had a template that it could easily build upon.

For years, Winnipeg had discouraged through traffic on a handful of streets each summer and created places for walking and biking. During the first COVID summer, the program was quickly expanded and a number of linear parks were created. But it couldn’t be made permanent because the program has always been illegal: Under Manitoba law, people are not allowed to walk in the lane of a street that has a sidewalk.

The province showed no inclination to change the law, so Winnipeg renamed the program Enhanced Cycling Corridors. Though people are still forbidden from walking on it, architect and urbanist Brent Bellamy says pedestrians spill off the sidewalks anyway.

The speed limit on Wellington Crescent in Winnipeg has been lowered to 30 km/h as part of the city’s 2022 Enhanced Summer Bike Route.Shannon VanRaes/The Globe and Mail

“There’s this spontaneous reclaiming of the streets because there’s so much less traffic and it’s more open,” he said, calling it a political advancement that had landed at a good point.

Such programs have been implemented across the country. They have a mixed track record.

In Vancouver, 40 kilometers of “slow roads” remain, where drivers are asked to take their foot off the gas pedal. But in Stanley Park, the bold move to close the streets to traffic didn’t last more than a few months. The main route around the park is now split between cars and bikes. In Calgary, the Adaptive Roadway program was reduced to just four spots from a peak of nine last year.

Toronto’s open street program — dubbed ActiveTO — has met with headwinds from motorists, particularly for using part of the main artery, Lake Shore Boulevard, on the west side. Critics said it slowed motorists too much, while proponents pointed to its considerable popularity, noting that many more people walked and cycled the repurposed road than would otherwise ride it.

The City Council supported a proposal by city officials to make ActiveTO’s use of Lake Shore an occasional thing, more of a street festival than a regular physical and social outlet. But the city insisted ActiveTO wasn’t dead, pointing to restricted car access for a few miles of an easterly road and multi-use trail in a hydroelectric corridor in Scarborough that was always closed to cars.

City Parks

For Canadians, especially those without a private outdoor space, the local park has become a vital support for physical and mental health. People have flocked to city green spaces in such numbers that they have stretched maintenance budgets and shed light on parking policies that critics have called outdated.

One issue was the official ban on drinking in many parks. It’s been flagged as an injustice because apartment dwellers often don’t have a backyard to enjoy an al fresco drink — to them, the park is their backyard.

Despite criticism, some cities, including Vancouver and Calgary, allowed restricted drinking in parks. Winnipeg went part way there by approving beer gardens — including a popular one in Assiniboine Park — that sold alcohol but were much larger than a traditional patio and weren’t affiliated with a specific bar. So far, these measures are popular and do not appear to be under immediate threat.

People sit and lie in the sun at Kitsilano Beach Park in Vancouver on May 9, 2020.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

However, in Toronto, in both 2021 and 2022, the council rejected a council member’s push to test the waters by allowing alcohol in parks under certain rules. Instead, Mayor John Tory secured the council’s support for further investigation into the issue with recommendations for a possible rule change next year.

The additional crowds also made it clear that many parks did not have enough public restrooms. People who might have ducked into a nearby fast-food restaurant have faced long lines and often locked public facilities.

A number of cities responded by installing portable potties. In some cases, libraries near parks were dealing with overflow volumes. Such temporary solutions are expected to remain in place. But any broader push to replace permanent public toilets that have disappeared in the 20th century remains mired in familiar concerns about their possible use by drug users or as a haven for the homeless.

Amid conflicts over how parks should be used – and by whom – Dave Harvey, founder and chief executive of charity Park People, is pleased that the pandemic has proved to anyone who might have doubted that these green spaces are vital urban infrastructure were. They’re not just a nice-to-have.

And while he worries that municipal budgets may not be able to cope with the new pressures, he welcomed the new willingness to fund the creation of city parks.

“For the federal government to come out of COVID and say we’re going to get involved in city parks again is a great development,” Harvey said. “Hopefully that’s a net benefit from COVID.”


With the country now in its third pandemic summer, the most visible urban change is probably the proliferation of roadside pop-up terraces, which have sprung up in dozens of cities across the country.

Using street space for patios is an approach rarely seen in Canada before the pandemic. Hamilton was one of the first in the country to allow temporary terraces in parking lots and off-street lots. The city made the program permanent earlier this year.

Last year Vancouver expanded its COVID patio program to include street locations. And in Toronto, where nearly 1,000 such installations lined the curbs last summer — over a 12-kilometer stretch — the city will reimburse some of the cost of building the terrace infrastructure this year.

People have lunch at Melissa’s on Main Street in Banff, Alta. on June 5, 2021.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

In Calgary, the city granted 165 temporary patio permits in 2020 and 219 last year. This year, applications have dropped with no indoor capacity restrictions. The rules have also changed: instead of placing the pop-up patio on the sidewalk and forcing pedestrians to bypass it, the patio will be installed on the side of the road and the sidewalk will be cleared for pedestrians.

One reason for the popularity of such patios is that even in expensive cities, street parking is quite cheap. As a result, using the space as terraces instead can generate much more economic activity.

A 2021 Toronto Business Improvement Areas study estimated that diners spent $181 million on curbside patios during the 13 weeks of summer that year. If used as a parking lot, assuming pre-pandemic demand, those spaces would have generated $3.7 million in revenue, according to the local parks authority.

Figures like this are compelling, especially for restaurant owners who have struggled through the past two years. But this argument can also give the impression that Canadian cities are only willing to change if it makes someone money.

“Which almost goes to show the fact that we care more about business than people,” said Mr. Toderian, the consultant and former planner.

“But we should be willing to rethink road space and the amount of space we give cars for the good of people, right?”

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