City Building

Staying Apart to Pull Together: Reflections from Ken Greenberg

By March 20, 2020 No Comments

Urban designer Ken Greenberg  is our organization’s co-founder. Since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Toronto, he’s been keeping a daily diary. We’re publishing some of his thoughts and reflections here, in the hope that they help connect us under a common experience and cause.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Not even sure how to start this. The world has changed so drastically in the past few days. Six days ago, on Tuesday evening, I gave a talk at the Urban Land Institute’s “Meet the Chiefs” meeting in a ballroom with 400 people sitting at tables and sharing a meal. We did elbow bumps instead of handshakes and people were somewhat bemused, but while there was some nervousness it hadn’t really sunk in how quickly life would change.

On Wednesday, I had coffee in a local café with colleagues from Denmark, talking about opportunities for architects in Toronto. Everything still felt almost normal. By Thursday as the news reports came in all of my meetings had become phone calls; Friday was my last sort-of normal day. I somewhat nervously went to Brampton for a series of meetings. I drove instead of taking the GO train, to avoid Union Station and the train, and used the ubiquitous hand sanitizers at every opportunity. We all realized that this would be the last face-to-face meeting for some time to come. And in fact, shortly afterwards, Brampton announced the shutdown of City Hall.

Saturday afternoon, Eti and I were on our own and we went for one long walk, carefully keeping our distance from others as we walked up Spadina, across College and back through Kensington Market. By this time, bombarded with news from around the world and locally, we had realized that these walks and possibly drives would be our only activity outside our apartment.

On Sunday, we took the car and drove up to Downsview where I am working on a project and did a couple of walks around the park and through a ravine trail leading to the park from the neighbourhood to the west, consciously keeping a distance from others. It was a beautiful sunny day and the vista from the park was quite captivating. A few people were out walking and driving back and forth the city still seemed almost completely normal in contrast with the dire news were hearing on the radio in the car as events unfolded.

Today is Monday, and as I awoke, some realizations started to sink in, from the macro all-encompassing to the micro and personal.

At some level–and I know this sounds melodramatic–I have a feeling somewhere that this COVID-19 pandemic disrupting everything on earth for humans is a cosmic wake up call, a warning that we have been abusing the planet, too embroiled in pointless disputes, and narrow self-interested economic pursuits to see the bigger picture and focus on our collective survival as a species, and our obligations to steward the natural and human ecosystems we are part of.

We are being forced to acknowledge, willingly or not, our extraordinary interdependence–the fact that everything and everyone is connected to everything and everyone else. That … we are all connected and vulnerable together. We are in a profound sense, like it or not, our brothers and sisters keepers. We are truly in this together.


[Questions arise]…When will we resume regular activities? Events? Working together, holding face to face meetings? How will this affect people’s livelihoods? How many businesses will disappear? In other words when will things change and how? When can we become sociable again? And what does this do for life in public and social cohesion? How does it affect loneliness and isolation? What happens when we start to fear each other over time? These are hard things to ponder.

Very personally now here are some more hard questions. When will Eti and I be able to resume our professional lives, to see people and do things? When will my jobs resume? When can she teach Tai Chi again? Will this be a matter of weeks or months or many months? Or even longer?  And it of course is not just about us. How about all of us whose lives are being turned upside down?

And finally not to be morbid there is this: if 50% of us are going to be infected, our odds of getting the virus are 1 in 2. We are in the category of most vulnerable seniors. If we get this there is a risk that we will get seriously ill. What does that mean for us? There is a chance that, hopefully remote, one or both of us may not survive this. This is going to a dark place, but it has to be acknowledged that the thought has occurred to me. If our lives were cut short now have we lived to the fullest? Have we contributed what we could? For now we have a special obligation to draw as close to each other and the ones we love and care about as possible because no one really knows what is coming.

This is the maelstrom of thoughts from the cosmic to the mundane, from the broad questions of society to the most personal and intimate, swirling through my head. More to come.

Later on Monday…The sense of urgency is increasingly palpable. I am typing as I am listening to non-stop announcements on the radio. Things keep evolving, with Federal, Provincial and Municipal announcements. Restaurants and bars now ordered closed in Toronto. France shuts down completely like Spain and Italy. Aid for businesses announced and for more sick leave in the province without conditions.

Earlier we went for another walk, this time heading west along King Street past the rail corridor and back through Liberty Village. Trying to do this daily for as long as we can, since it is just about all we can do outside the apartment. Cool but sunny. Felt a little edgy and sensed some uneasiness among other walkers or was I just imagining that reflecting my own feelings. There is a kind of dissociated reality.  Each new step is announced with the caveat “at this time.” On the one hand we hang on to life as usual. On the other we are bracing for the worst. Time feels heavy and ominous.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

My pattern is now one of switching in and out of an alternate non-Covid 19 reality to be found in a book, listening to music, watching a movie, immersed in dreams, or simply getting absorbed in something else where the virus is not top of mind or even present and then suddenly crashing back and facing it head on. Case in point, I woke up at around 3 AM this morning from my usual busy dreams and was plunged into absorbing all the consequences of what is unfolding with the virus. It was hard to switch it off.

This shift is challenging almost everything we have believed and worked for in terms of a sociable city where see and interact with each other live in welcoming places like our neighbourhood and in daily routines that connect us with others. This is a painful withdrawal.

Looking down a long tunnel for daylight it is hard to see where, when and how this will end. A state of emergency announcement by the province this morning shut down more things and places and although it is in effect until March 31, that is sure to be extended. Little by little the calendar empties. I just learned that the entire summer program for the Bentway has been cancelled. There is already little or no difference between weekdays and weekends.

Still, we need to keep our spirits up, our minds and bodies active as this happens. Physical exercise is important–I am extending my stationary bike to an hour every morning–but we also will need to keeping our minds alert. It is clearly a good thing that we now have the internet to fall back on and hard to imagine what we would do without it. The telephone becomes a more important way again of keeping in touch. And the radio has become our lifeline. CBC news and commentary are especially important as a reliable source of information; we are fortunate to have it. But in large doses it is overwhelming.

In theory it sounds like this would be the ideal time to get immersed in some big new project–after all we have nothing but time–but so far, it is hard to focus.

Just had a conversation with colleagues about a new project and its prospects. It was hard not to feel subterranean caveats tugging at me even as I expressed all of my normal optimism about the future. Everyone I am involved with including at the Bentway, Myseum and Brampton is attempting to invent digital versions of themselves to carry and maintain contact with their publics and constituencies. This makes sense, and will surely result in some ingenious and positive innovations. I am worried, however, that this could become permanent and lead to a sense that shared physical places have become redundant and can be replaced by digital spaces. I fervently hope that the social distancing we are now experiencing does not become the new norm when this pandemic passes. This excellent article appeared in the New York Times by Michael Kimmelman explores this in depth [subscription required].

Today’s walk was across the yellow bridge, over the rail corridor and east along the trail to Skydome [sic], circling around on Bremner and up Simcoe to Queen, and then back to Portland and home. Admittedly not the most attractive route, but it felt eerily ominous and half like a ghost town with almost all of the shops and restaurants closed, and many fewer people out in the streets.

Trying to keep in touch with people by phone in the meantime. There is something reassuring about hearing people’s actual voices in these times, a sense of sharing the experience and caring for each other. We spoke with our friends in Vancouver when they were out for a walk in Stanley Park, which they said was largely empty.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Busy today with video calls re. Brampton, first with Metrolinx and then re. Community Hubs colleagues. Everyone seems to be trying hard to keep going, despite everything by working remotely. Two more calls coming with Boston (Cambridge) and Myseum. Will catch up with my son Paul and daughter Anna again later too. Important to keep in touch.

This morning on the radio as I was exercising someone talked about the phenomenon of “staying apart to pull together” as a way of explaining what is happening to kids, why there is a redeeming social purpose to social distancing and protecting others, that this is a form of cohesion. [There was also] lots of talk about coping mechanisms, various apps, online meditation music, games, exercises etc.; dealing with our need for news but also for breaks from overload and stress. I too am experiencing mood swings, sometimes engrossed in something else, and sometimes feelings of helplessness and fatigue.

The sun, when it appears, makes a big difference. It somehow makes everything less ominous.

Victoria Square as seen from Ken Greenberg’s window. Normally full of people, it is now empty.