City BuildingEvents

What does the future hold for cities? Series Recap

By May 11, 2020 No Comments
Banner image for series featuring person looking across Lake Ontario at Toronto

The COVID-19 pandemic poses questions for cities around the world, including here in the GTA: what will be the impacts, short-term and lasting, to urban life? We brought together Ryerson experts and leading urban thinkers to discuss the future of cities post-COVID-19, and produced a series of five online discussions, partnering with Urban Land Institute Toronto. 

Here are the highlights from these conversations.

Week 1: Future of Density (April 8)

Sparked by a fierce debate about urban density involving many media outlets and urbanists on social media, we invited Dr. Murtaza Haider and Ken Greenberg to share their takes. They agreed that “density is not the enemy,” and believe that to abandon urban density would be to abandon our broader social and environmental goals. 

However the solution is not density at any cost, but density done right <link>. For a more sustainable and livable urban future, Toronto should be designing neighbourhoods and cities to better accommodate and support local economies, like in the “15-minute city” proposed by Mayor Anne Hidalgo of Paris, France.

>> Read the article by Brian M. Rosenthal that started it all in the New York Times, and a rebuttal by Stefan Novakovic in AZURE

>> Ken Greenberg’s “COVID Reflections” and the Ryerson Urban Analytics Institute’s “the density-disease debate” are must-reads

Week 2: Future of 9 to 5 (April 15)

With a majority of businesses and organizations shifting to remote work, suddenly roadways were free of congestion, and transit agencies began noting steep declines in ridership. This week, panelists Pedro Barata (Executive Director, Future Skills Centre) and Marcy Burchfield (VP, Economic Blueprint Institute, Toronto Region Board of Trade) joined us to comment on how a reorganization of labour markets to accommodate physical distancing may affect patterns of development and transportation. 

>> “This disruption of the 9 to 5 was well underway before today’s crisis. If we’re going to move to this new model where people are more contained – then urban policies need to keep up with that and that stems from affordable housing.” @pedrobarataTO

Week 3: Future of Climate and City Building (April 22)

To recognize Earth Day, we took a special look at the intersection of the COVID-19 pandemic and broader themes of urban sustainability and resilience. Looking ahead, panelist Dr. Pamela Robinson (Director and Professor, Ryerson School of Urban and Regional Planning) highlighted the unique opportunities to target recovery efforts and stimulus funding to achieve local social, environmental and health goals in an integrated manner.

Panelists Roya Khaleeli (Sustainable Design Manager, Minto Communities) and Jenny McMinn (Managing Director, Urban Equation) noted that in experiencing governmental response to the pandemic, we now know that we can shift gears and enforce game-changing policy measures to address a global challenge. 

>> KEY RESOURCES: One Planet Living System by Bioregional is a sustainability framework that has been used in an estimated $30 billion of real estate development around the world to date, including the Baker Street District in Guelph, Ontario // Building Up is a unique social enterprise that runs an intensive pre-apprenticeship trades training program for individuals who face barriers to employment.

Week 4: Future of Main Streets (April 29)

We already knew from Toronto’s Retail Main Streets Study and our own research that Toronto’s small, independent businesses face a host of issues. Our panel of Dr. Tony Hernandez (Director, Centre for the Study of Commercial Activity and Professor, Ryerson University), John Archer (Chief Development Officer, 360 Collective) and Pauline Larsen (Director, Economic and Community Development, Downtown Yonge BIA) agreed the pandemic has magnified these. 

After the Canadian Federation of Independent Business warned that enforced closures (and drastically reduced operations) were having “dire” effects on small businesses, this panel commented on the local situation, and measures crucial in the months ahead to bolster business capacity and the public trust necessary to welcome shoppers back to main streets.

>> Pauline Larsen says Toronto could lean on its experience with pop-up retail to help in main street recovery efforts, recommending the Ryerson-based knowledge hub at for resources and best practices.

> This Q&A blog post examines further questions related to main street businesses, with John Archer and Dr. Tony Hernandez

>> Canadian Urban Institute launched its Bring Back Main Streets initiative on May 6, a national collaborative effort that looks to support main streets in their recovery from COVID19 and ongoing resilience.

Week 5: Future of Public Space (May 6)

In our final webinar, Dr. Anne Harris (Epidemiologist and Associate Professor, Ryerson University) and Dave Harvey (Executive Director, Park People) expressed optimism in how the pandemic is underscoring the need to provide safe public spaces for both recreation and essential travel. Harris explained the thinking behind her open letter with Dr. Linda Rothman to Toronto’s Mayor and Medical Officer of Health, picked up by multiple news outlets, urging the city to reallocate road space to safely accommodate travel by active transportation amidst physical distancing requirements. Harvey spoke to some of the latest challenges in park access, and the behind-the-scenes advocacy of Park People to ensure parks are considered a vital part of a safe and healthy city as recovery efforts proceed, and that permanent solutions are found to provide green space where it is currently lacking.

>> Read Anne Harris’ list of additional resources about streets and social distancing on Twitter

>> Hear Anne Harris and Dave Harvey on Ontario Morning (12-minute mark)

> Read about ActiveTO, announced May 6, Toronto’s new plan for helping residents to get outside safely while maintaining physical distancing


Ryerson CBI thanks everyone who was involved in this special series, including the over 600 people who registered for each of our webinars and tuned in every week to hear from our featured panelists.

WATCH: Recordings of all webinars are available on our Future of Cities page.