Densely populated cities across North America have been hot spots for COVID-19’s spread, but they’ll also be pioneers for lasting change to prevent future outbreaks.
As the coronavirus pandemic leaves its mark on every facet of our lives, forcing us to rethink where we go, what we do and who we see, our large urban areas will be forever changed. Major highways, financial districts, arenas, restaurants and bars have been rendered ghost towns as lockdowns and restrictions were put in place to help curb the rapid spread of the virus.
It won’t be as simple as “back to normal” once “this is all over.” For many of us, we are ever so connected to the ties within our cities; our jobs, education, our social circles, hobbies, family life and community all have a link to the city, and in the wake of the pandemic we’ve seen these ties come undone. By nature, we thrive on social interactions to help us grow, learn, stay connected and innovate, and cities have been the place for us to do this for centuries. They’ve also been the place where the spread of illness can be enabled.
But our cities can’t be shuttered indefinitely — the toll on our society, mental health and economy is too devastating. How can our cities survive this pandemic and come out stronger? The steps taken now will help prepare us for what’s next.
Moving Around Comfortably
Crucial to the function of any major city, our modes of transportation will need to adapt to meet the current climate. In buses, streetcars, subways, trains and airplanes, temperature checks and health screenings could become the norm alongside security measures already in place. Reducing overcrowding and delays will be important, as will painted lines on floors, stanchions and markers to promote safe distance along with boarding policies and blocked off seats, like what we’ve seen in New York City.
Already social distancing has forced many cities to consider broader sidewalks in crowded districts and shutting streets as a response to COVID-19. In Atlanta some roads have been closed off to vehicles, opening more space for cyclists and pedestrians to move about safely as many have taken a renewed interest in walking and biking to their destination rather than hopping on public transit or calling a ride share. In Canada, the City of Toronto has released a new plan for the rapid installation of new cycling infrastructure, giving residents an alternative to transit in wake of the pandemic. Many of these adjustments will need to be permanent to give people the freedom to move around comfortably and confidently as they gradually return to daily life.
Staying Safe Indoors
Buildings are what bring large groups of people together, but if managed poorly they can be a hotspot for spreading illness. As city dwellers spend almost 90 per cent of their time indoors, our schools, offices, residential towers and arenas need to find ways to pandemic-proof. Whitney Austin Gray, SVP of the International Well Building Institute says improved air ventilation and filtration systems will become a major focus to control microbes in the air and increase indoor humidity to reduce the presence of germs. In public entryways, stairwells, co-working spaces and high traffic spots, space will need to be designated to prevent overcrowding. Capacity numbers in schools, theatres and offices will see a reduction with many seats left open to practice distancing, and masks and hand sanitizer made available as needed for safe opening.
Supporting Local Economy
In the wake of the pandemic, the pulse of our cities have been drastically lowered. Everyday errands and rituals like standing in line for coffee, waiting for a table at the hot new restaurant and shopping at the local mom-and-pop now pose a health concern. The core of our local economies must be protected and assisted if we want the vibrancy of our cities to survive. These vital small businesses like barber shops, nail salons, boutiques and cafes generate much needed job opportunities and bring character to our communities. They will need continued support from local patrons (especially while they’re running on modified service) and municipal guidance to reopen safely and survive.
In time, the strength of our cities and their inhabitants will continue to rise and shine. Eventually we will return to a “new normal” and go back to work and school, gather with friends at restaurants and fill theatres and stadiums as we always have with a newfound appreciation.