Canadian Urban Institute: How will COVID-19 affect Urban Design and Architecture?

Written by Hadiya Al-Idrissi

May 21, 2020

Back in April amidst the COVID-19 social distancing measures taken across the country, the Canadian Urban Institute (CUI) launched a series of weekly 1-hour online webinars with a panel of experts to discuss the effect of the pandemic on the Canadian urban environment and related topics. I virtually attended the first installment of CityTalk: Cities in the Time of COVID-19, which explored the impacts of the Coronavirus on urban design and architecture:

A Few Key Points and Food for Thought:

  • The biggest point that was made was that we don’t need to return to normal, that we should take the pandemic as an opportunity for immediate and future change. If anything, the pandemic has exposed that we have an overabundance of infrastructure (whether that be empty roads, office space, restaurants etc.) and this gives us an opportunity to rethink how they could be designed as multipurpose spaces so they are not rendered obsolete during times like these.
  • Covid-19 is a particle accelerator, forcing us to figure out how to rebuild social infrastructure digitally. For example, Adam’s staff are taking advantage of Microsoft Teams and setting up virtual cooking classes and entertainment recommendation lists to emulate the small social interactions that usually happen organically in offices.
  • We should rethink how we design homes now to be prepared to work remotely, for any length of time. Should there be more considerations made to allow for adequate work-from-home space even in bachelor apartments, for example?
  • As streets are the largest publicly owned property any city has, is it time to address the imbalance towards vehicular transportation? As there is significantly less traffic now, and people are still functioning, is there an opportunity to close or convert lanes in favour of wider bike lanes or sidewalks to facilitate social distancing? Could some lanes be dedicated towards delivery/emergency services or public transit only?
  • A new resurgence of nimbyism is expected. People will be more opposed to the densification of urban areas as social and physical distancing become a new accepted norm. However, this pandemic has exposed the significant need for ‘missing middle housing’, as the most disadvantaged individuals can’t retreat to a home for isolation when told to #stayhome. Adam pointed out, separating fear from cause will be incredibly important in the future.
  • Is now the time to reconsider zoning and land uses for certain areas, and try to create multi-centered cities so individuals don’t have to travel so far for work, retail or civic services? Can we plan cities in a way to adhere to the 15-minute walking distance radius to access everything we need to function? Can the majority of businesses/services we need be accessed solely online and free up space in the community?
  • Is there now a need for more smaller public spaces rather than few large ones?
  • Are there other ways to facilitate social interaction while maintaining social distancing in urban areas? (Balconies are a good solution but are not energy efficient).
  • Can we utilize this time to test out urban design pilot projects (for example: NYC’s High-Line) to see if they work, then fully implement them post Covid-19?
  • As a closing point, it was unanimously agreed that the government and regulators will ultimately have the biggest role to play in funding/designating/enforcing these proposed changes, but it is up to us as professionals in the field to facilitate and create a prepared and robust public realm that stands up to the issues pandemics present, while serving everyone equally.

A recording and transcript of the webinar itself can be found at the link below:

Be sure to check out past discussions and upcoming topics at the link below!

Stay Safe!

Hadiya Al-Idrissi

Development Project Coordinator

May 21, 2020