The impact of Covid-19 on public space

By Al Ruggero

COVID-19 has shifted our reality in a few short months. Mostly, we have learned about a deadly virus and how it caused a global pandemic and forced us to adapt to restrictions and measures that dramatically impacted our economy, our society and our mobility. We have also, to our common good, learned of the necessity of adopting the practices and social norms that are in place to keep us safe and to ensure others around us also stay safe.

Many have lost jobs and are forced to stay home. Others are either working from home or, as workers deemed essential, go to work under challenging circumstances such as in grocery stores, hospitals, long term care facilities and in warehouses and manufacturing facilities – whose products and services are considered essential. Some who commute to work avoid both public transit and driving, and are walking or cycling to their destination. Like other cities, Toronto is experiencing a surge of pedestrian traffic and is looking at ways to adapt our public areas to allow for more space between people. In just over 70 days, our personal space comfort zone has gone from inches to six feet. The city is closing traffic lanes and adding cycling lanes to accommodate an anticipated pedestrian and cyclist increase.

However, as we move to a more open economy, space becomes an essential commodity. Unlike many congested areas of the world, in North America, we’ve taken for granted that we have an overabundance of space. In the past, urban critics pointed to the wasted spaces. They neglected public areas as apparent examples of the lack of attention paid to designing proper outdoor spaces. In the last decade, our approach to public space has matured. Indeed, the emergence of BIAs and other city organizations whose work is to enhance the functionality and appeal of the public realm points to the growing awareness.

As we approach the gradual easing of the restrictions and the arrival of spring weather, an increasing number of people are seen enjoying the outdoors. Thankfully, most continue to social distance and wear masks. But for those who encounter others on the sidewalk, it can be tricky. With more users, it has become apparent that our sidewalks were never designed to allow us to maintain and perform the social distancing jig. A few years ago, the City of Toronto adjusted the width requirement of all new sidewalks from an average of 1.5 metres to 2.1 metres (30 percent increase) in order to comply with new Provincial standards. Even the new wide sidewalks are not enough. There are only two ways to create more space, make more, such as enlarging sidewalks further or creating lanes and restricting the number of occupants. The way forward appears to be a combination of both.

COVID-19 closed many parks and playgrounds. The parks will reopen, but not as places to linger, picnic, or party. Many social and sports activities are, for now, off-limits.

While we hope that the vast majority of the changes to the public domain will be temporary, the impact for planning and designing new parks and commons will continue into the future. We will need more parks and public areas. Likewise, we will need to re-think the design and surface treatment of our playgrounds, to allow more spacing between kids. We will expand the use of self-cleaning and anti-microbial surfaces and paints.

We also need to consider many things that we take for granted. While public space is generally seen as public property, other space is referred to as publicly accessible and owned privately. This is the case for shopping malls, parking lots and retail based “public” toilets. Many retailers, shops, and fast food outlets will find it difficult and costly to allow public access to their washrooms. As the senior population grows, it is imperative that local governments look at options such as expanding the numbers and placements of public toilets.

We need to turn our attention to the shape of the new (and old) spaces where we work, live and play.