The list of challenges and negatives of dealing with this pandemic is long, and those impacts will be felt by many for a long time. However, if I may, I’d like to suggest one potential upside in all of this – the opportunity for having a larger conversation about what our cities are – and what they could be.
As governments, community organizations, and essential workers, both locally and globally, work tirelessly to support residents through these challenging days, we see important measures being put into place, such as increasing access to affordable housing (even if much of it is currently temporary/emergency shelter), increased funding to essential support services like health care and employment insurance, and even an increase in wages (again, much of it temporary) for minimum-wage workers. We are now surrounded by wide roads emptied of traffic as many of us strive to #StayHomeSaveLives. And there are many examples of neighbours supporting each other through all of this with creative ways to connect.
Although there are some unfortunate stories of people not distancing themselves or otherwise not participating in attempts to flatten the curve, I am seeing far more examples of people supporting each other and advocating for improved resources for our most vulnerable citizens. I am seeing people who have never contacted their elected officials before, doing exactly that to encourage more funding for affordable housing, or sharing petitions that advocate for subsidized rents or call for an end to evictions.
I am also seeing calls for re-prioritizing our street spaces to focus moving people safely (as we practice physical distancing), instead of moving cars. As cities are shifting towards stricter measures of ensuring we don’t see a rise in covid cases, we see many outdoor spaces being temporarily shut down, with some cities even closing trails all together. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Just this week, London, ON decided to close a few streets to vehicles, to ensure pedestrians and cyclists can access those spaces while practising physical distancing. Calgary is changing their beg buttons (those frustrating buttons pedestrians must push to activate the cross signal) so pushing the button is no longer required, in light of concerns around community spread of covid.
These are only a few small illustrations of how things are changing as we deal with this crisis. However, these changes don’t need to be temporary and they don’t need to be small. These small examples simply show us a glimmer of what is possible and remind us that this may be an opportunity to upend the status quo of how cities operate. We are seeing the first signs of things changing that many have said were previously impossible (I mean, how many of us expected to see the Provincial Conservatives working well with the Federal Liberals?). We are housing people who previously had no shelter; we are offering financial support to those with precarious, limited, or no income; and we’re seeing shifts in how people are moving around the city.
For me, this feels like encouragement that we can make permanent changes that allow our communities to offer affordable housing for all, a basic income program, and more active transportation options that focus on moving people, not cars. So, with all these challenges around covid, I do still find glimmers of hope. In this crisis we are seeing some examples of a new vision for cities, one that is more compassionate, sustainable, caring, and equitable.