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Drawing from case studies across the globe, this book explores how the pandemic and the policies it has prompted have caused changes in the ways cities function. The contributors examine the advancing social inequality brought on by the pandemic and suggest policies intended to contain contagion whilst managing the economy in these circumstances.
On October 28, 2020, Canada's Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr Theresa Tam, stated that the pandemic was exposing existing inequalities in Canada. In a television address, she said that:
‘The impacts of COVID-19 in this country have been worsened by systems that stigmatize populations through racism, ageism, sexism, and others, who have been marginalized through structural or social factors such as homelessness … Differences [in infection rates] are not random, but all along the lines of populations that have historically experienced health and social inequities … The impacts have been worse for some groups such as seniors, workers who provide essential services, such as those in health care or agriculture, racialized populations, people living with disabilities, and women. The virus didn't create new inequities in our society; it exposed them and underscored the impact of our social policies on our health status’.
While this may have been a revelation for some people, for the contributors to this volume, and the others in this series, such a direct and unequivocal statement was not surprising.
Such insights are also nothing new to those with lived experiences of these inequalities and injustices. Throughout the four volumes, one of our aims has been to include chapters that amplify these voices by meaningfully, respectfully, and ethically engaging with marginalized communities in order to center their experiences within planning, policy, and political debates about the impact of the pandemic and, importantly, how to respond to it. The findings, analysis, and reflection found throughout this series of books must be a reminder to planners and policy makers that the divisions, inequities, and injustices rendered visible during the COVID-19 pandemic long predate the virus. As a result, any meaningful policies to address them must primarily focus on the structural forces that produce unequal cities and societies.
The chapters in this volume prompt us to ask two important questions. First, does the pandemic require us to think of new ideas or solutions? Or phrased another way, can the challenges of the pandemic be addressed by implementing policies that scholars, advocates, and practitioners have been calling for for many years? Is it a question of new ideas, or changing priorities? Related to this, the second question we must ask is this: what social, economic, planning, and political factors need to change in order to build more equitable cities?
You are currently reading one of the four volumes of Global Reflections on COVID-19 and Urban Inequalities, which jointly explore schisms the pandemic has both revealed and widened, and measures taken to mitigate or eradicate these societal gaps. The aim of this series of edited volumes is to bring together a collection of critical urban voices across various disciplines, geographies, and perspectives in order to examine the urban challenges of COVID-19 and its impact on new and existing inequities in cities around the world.
There are two sides to the pandemic. As a highly contagious disease, given enough time and a lack of effective mitigation to restrain its spread, COVID-19 will eventually infect a large majority of the population, regardless of income or geography. This is why many public health measures are directed at entire national (or indeed global) populations. But we have also quickly learned that COVID-19 is selective in its effects – for instance, based on age and comorbidity – and that the pandemic and responses to it exacerbate fault lines traversing cities, societies, and, indeed, the world order.
There is a clear urban dimension to these inequities. Some parts of the city and some populations who reside in cities are more likely to contract and spread the virus. COVID-19 is thus an amplifier of pre-existing social divisions. Access to medical treatment and possibilities to physically isolate from potential infection are unevenly distributed. So too are the consequences of policy responses, such as lockdowns, the economic impacts of the pandemic, and the individual and political reactions it prompts. The pandemic has therefore increased divisions such as between young and old, rich and poor, left and right, and countless other societal dichotomies. As a result, experiences of urban life during the pandemic vary greatly. Where these impacts of the pandemic intersect with pre-existing racism, ageism, sexism, ableism, and spatial divisions within the city, the consequences have been particularly severe. As we write this preface, vaccines are starting to be produced, distributed, and administered. This poses new questions: will we emerge from the pandemic thanks to these vaccines? How equitable will the distribution of vaccines be within countries and at the global scale?
This context suggests myriad potential urban futures. The planning, policy, and political choices made in the short term will impact the medium-and long-term trajectories of cities and the lives of their residents.
Contributions to this volume engage directly with different urban communities around the world. They give voice to those who experience poverty, discrimination and marginalisation in order to put them in the front and centre of planning, policy and political debates that make and shape cities.
Many official smart growth-inspired Canadian plans limit sprawl by mixing land uses, transportation modes, jobs, and residents to create compact, transit-oriented, multi-functional intensification centers enriched with amenities and highly designed public spaces (Ontario Government Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, 2019 ; City of Toronto, 2018). However, these intensification strategies, built on new or expanded public transit systems at metropolitan, regional, and local planning scales, face challenges amid the 2020 pandemic (Filion et al, 2016).
Recovery from the combined COVID-19-induced loss of commercial activity in intensification centers and confidence in public transit could take years, and combined with an increased reliance on private vehicles, could undo decades of planning efforts at shifting unsustainable land use-transportation dynamics. Concurrently, there is growing attention on sustainable cities with ample public spaces where safe walking and cycling can flourish. Advocates call for reclaiming the streets for people, pedestrians, and cyclists as a resilient strategy for cities and healthy living (Ewing, 2020a). Cities like Milan, Paris, New York, and Seattle are making permanent, temporary space accommodations to pandemic-related pedestrian flows and distancing (Laker, 2020).
This chapter is based on the Canadian (and to a large extent North American) urban reality, which is dominated by lowdensity, functionally-specialized, and automobile-oriented land uses. Over the last decades, planning efforts to modify this urban form took the form of high-density intensification centers focused on existing or new public transit rail or BRT (bus rapid transit) systems. Such a strategy faces mounting uncertainty amid pandemic-induced, and possibly long-lasting, transit ridership, brick and mortar retailing, and office work decline. We propose as an alternative, or complementary, intensification approach, a pedestrian-oriented development (POD) model inspired by the ‘15-minute city’ being considered across the world. The chapter refers to transit-oriented developments and other attempts at concentrating density and multifunctionality as intensification centers. Different forms of intensification centers share as an objective the creation of spaces that contrast with the North American low-density car-dependent norm. One version of intensification centers discussed here is primarily transit-oriented while the other is more focused on a pedestrian-hospitable environment.
The impacts of COVID-19 on transit-based intensification centers
COVID-19 impacts multiple facets of intensification centers organized around transit and amplifies issues present prior to the pandemic.
The virus which causes COVID-19 is an invisible threat that has hugely impacted cities and their inhabitants in numerous ways, as also outlined in other volumes in this series. Volume 1 focused on how pre-existing inequalities within society have augmented and exacerbated when they have intersected with the pandemic; Volume 2 expanded on this theme with a specific focus on housing. Yet, though the virus itself might be imperceptible, its impact is sometimes very visible, perhaps most so in urban public spaces and spaces of mobility, which are the central themes of this third volume. Since March 2020, cities all over the world have restricted the access to, and use of, public spaces, in order to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 (Honey-Rosés et al, 2020). In countries with very strict lockdowns, this resulted in empty streets and marketplaces, and spatial and temporal restrictions limiting the frequency, duration, and reach of outdoor visits.
Although such restrictions generally applied to everyone, they have nevertheless rendered socio-economic inequalities along spatial lines sharper and clearer. Indeed, as Moore (2020) puts it, ‘the division between the private and public space is being played out in this bizarre inability to acknowledge that many do not have private outside space: that they rely on a communal “outdoors” that is now to be avoided and policed’. As such, the COVID-19 crisis added a third process producing the often proclaimed ‘end’ or ‘death’ of public space, as emphasized by Van Eck et al (2020: 375): ‘In addition to the privatisation and commercialisation of public spaces, healthrelated regulations by local governments impact the nature of public spaces as important meeting places.’ Consequently, 2020 has been proclaimed as the ‘year without public space’.
Yet, while at the start of the pandemic public space was considered a threat to urban health that needed to be avoided and restricted, gradually this representation shifted towards the acknowledgment that public spaces are critical infrastructures for the operation of cities (for example for access to health services and food and resource distribution) as well as the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of their inhabitants (UN Habitat, 2020). Cities as diverse as Milan, Paris, Bogotá, and Vancouver (see Chapter Sixteen, this volume) transformed previously car-oriented streets into spaces specifically assigned to cyclists and pedestrians, so that people could commute, exercise and relax while keeping their physical distance.