City Building

Ken Greenberg: is COVID-19 the accelerator for walkable neighbourhoods?

By July 20, 2020 No Comments

This post originally appeared on on July 16, 2020 as “How We Can Get Back to Walkable Neighbourhoods throughout the Toronto City Region and Why Covid 19 May be the Accelerator.” Find the original post here. Image sources throughout are not available.

When Covid 19 arrived we were already in the midst of a profound paradigm shift away from the mid-twentieth over embrace of the automobile. We were slowly and painfully pulling back from an historic wrong turn and getting back on our feet, the shift I have been advocating for all along and chronicling in my two books Walking Home (2011) and Toronto Reborn (2019).

The pushback began with the increased appreciation for and popularity of older city pre-war neighbourhoods like the Beach below which pre-dated the car and were inherently walkable with active main streets, a mix of housing, transit, local parks and civic institutions all within close proximity.

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We were applying that learning to the creation of a series of new denser neighbourhoods in the city’s core like the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood on the left, the revitalization of Regent Park on the right and the West Donlands in the centre of the image below. Each was anchored by signature parks and a cluster of easily accessible daily life activities and mixed-income housing for a diverse population.

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And in the ‘Kings’ neighbourhoods (King/Spadina and King/Parliament) taking shape in manufacturing and warehouse districts, along with new layers of residential development have come the amenities of city life. This is the view from my window overlooking Victoria Memorial Square in Wellington Place where virtually everything we need is accessible within a short walking distance.

But zoom out from the city centre and this kind of ‘walkability’ is hard to find. In the larger Toronto region particularly in those areas built in the post WWII era an overreliance on the car and too much space to spread out have isolated where we lived from where we worked, shopped and played and making car trips unavoidable for most daily activities. The aerial photo below shows this sprawling pattern of low density land-use segregated development.

We were already becoming well aware of the weaknesses and unintended by-products of this ubiquitous pattern, environmental degradation, poor public health outcomes related to a sedentary lifestyle, congestion and loss of time in our lives and a drag on the economy.

Now a harsh spotlight has been shone by Covid 19 on its social consequences by sorting us out by class, race and age, stress testing and revealing deep social inequities and vulnerabilities, in particular the treatment and living conditions of seniors, racialized minorities and ‘essential workers’ as is not just unjust but ultimately harmful to all of us.  Black Lives Matter and climate change have converged. The old issues are still there and new ones are piggybacking on them.

Some have described Covid 19 as a “particle accelerator”, enabling critical course corrections. Paradoxically it may push the things that we were trying to do anyway into overdrive.

Received wisdom is being challenged and questions asked that were not entertained before.

The imperatives of health and safety in the throes of the pandemic has if anything accentuated the need for the historic shift to more sustainable ways of living tying it inextricably to the need for social equity and resilience. Public health concerns from different eras, infectious disease and chronic disease are overlapping along with the community design implications and the lack of walkability is one of them.

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The walkable urban neighbourhood is the place where it all comes together. This is forcing an intense reconsideration of how the physical city shapes, enhances, or inhibits our lives to make us resilient or vulnerable from the city-region, to the district, the block, the street, the park, the courtyard and the dwelling unit and workplace.

Covid 19 is adding another level of urgency in forcing us out of entrenched silos, to look beyond the false dichotomies that separated us and kept us in constrained single purpose ‘boxes’ using this forced timeout to break through on intractable problems.  This is bringing many new partners and collaborators to the in particular bringing in public health practitioners.

We are seeing tipping points when what was impossible suddenly becomes possible, like the rapid takeover of traffic lanes for active transportation in cities around the world I described in my last blog. Covid 19 can also be a force majeure that clears the way for a return to walkable neighbourhoods.

The Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo provided an inspirational “prise de conscience” when she promoted “Le Paris du ¼ Heure” with this cartoon-like diagram, naming and branding a new way of creating holistic walkable city neighbourhoods, placing us at the centre of a 15 minute walking radius.


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This simple figure conjures up the enormous benefits of walkability and proximity to local shopping, transit, schools, daycare, libraries, recreation and culture, health care, and small business incubation. It takes us back to a path we had abandoned with overreliance on the car. It has ricocheted around the world capturing the imagination of city builders and has become the guiding mantra in cities that are reinventing themselves.  Changes are coming top down and bottom up but ultimately need support at both ends.

Nowhere is this re-orientation more urgent than in the vast suburban landscape where 2/3 of the population of the Greater Toronto City Region lives in a post-war environment shaped by the car. Case in point Brampton where I have been acting as a strategic advisor to the city for over a year.

Brampton is a forward-thinking city of over 690,000. It is the 9th largest in Canada, the fastest growing, the youngest and most diverse. It has the most acute need for this shift and yet perhaps offers the greatest opportunity.  Most significantly it has opted for change. The big turnaround 2040 Vision adopted in 2018 after community engagement involving thousands of citizens. Brampton’s self-imposed goal is to get from the image on the top of Queens Street one of the city’s major areries to the one below it by  re-directing  its annual growth of 20,000 into denser, walkable, compact eighbourhoods served by transit and making walking and cycling a reality.

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I have been working with the city on implementing that vision in a number of strategic locations. At its heart is Brampton’s version of the the 20 minute neighbourhood. Developed with the city’s Urban Design team led by Yvonne Yeung and staff in a number of departments, it is anchored by a ‘community hub’ (shown in blue) which combines park space, schools, community centre, library, day care, heath care, arts and culture, entrepreneurial opportunites, proximity to local shopping and space for a variety of community organizations and non-profits. In short access to many of the things we need in the course of our daily lives within walking distance. It is served by higher order transit and embraces active transportation. It provides a great opportunity to incorporate advanced thinking on environmental sustainability from storm water management to energy and waste.

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Critical to this mix is variety of housing opportunities including affordable mixed-income with different tenure options and household types serving the full range of the population, from young families to seniors and offering a viable alternative to the kind of low density auto-oriented sprawl which has characterized much of the city in previous decades.

The models for this form of 20 minute walkable neighbourhood often take inspiration from Scandinavian and northern European precedents. Below, for example is the emerging neighbourhood of Kalasatama in Helsinki my wife Eti and I visited which is pursuing many of these same goals and values. Of note is that the community and social infrastructure, the transit, the school, local shopping, the park and the supporting community facilities all grow along with the neighbourhood itself so that the neighbourhood exhibits its full DNA in each phase of development.





Interestingly, this idea of anchoring a neighbourhood around a cluster of civic institutions is not a new idea, at least partially.  Below is a well-known diagram of noted planner Clarence Perry’s neighbourhood unit plan, illustrating the core principles of the “community centered” neighbourhood surrounding an elementary school (from the New York Regional Survey in 1929).

The Achilles heel of this plan was that it was auto (not transit) oriented and drastically underestimated what traffic impact would look like in the future. Its 160 acres was bounded by highways and “shopping districts” were on the periphery anticipating what became in reality strip mall. Jobs were in a “Business Center” located somewhere else.

The stripped down derivative version of this concept we inherited in the post WWII decades became a familiar formula where the suburban school and school yard/park were surrounded by cul-de-sacs, the park was often  ‘back lotted’, kids are bussed and driven to school and every thing else – shopping, work, recreation and culture – requires a car trip.

There have been a series of efforts to expand on what the multi-use ‘community hub’ includes.  The Aiinaan Community Centre Library and Community Centre in Markham is a great  facility which combines two significant civic uses.  welcoming and well designed interior (below) clearly demonstrates the the benefit of putting these uses together but the ‘hub’  is still isolated from its surrounding neighbourhoods  and reliant on auto-acces with large surface parking lots.

Its downtown cousin at City Place combines a public and a separate school and a community centre at Canoe Landing Park and is set to open in September. Across Bremner Boulevard opposite the centre are small scale live/work shops and businesses, a grocery store and restaurants and cafes. Unlike the Helsinki example, however, there was a twenty year delay in getting this facility built after it became obvious that there were many young families with children living in the neighbourhood and the need became acute.

This idea of walkable transit-oriented neighbourhoods has now become a cornerstone of provincial planning policy accelerated by Covid 19. The Province of Ontario has just released its Bill 197 Covid 19 Economic Recovery Act 2020. It contains measures to expedite and support the creation of walkable TOC’s (transit-oriented communities) at strategic locations throughout the region like the “the Urban Growth Centres” indicated by the red circles on the map below.

Within these TOC’s as shown in this illustration the “model for healthy connected communities” includes a broad range of social infrastructure – daycare, medical services, affordable housing, employment and recreation (although not yet schools). The intended benefits include propelling economic recovery, financial savings, job creation and reducing pollution.

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To meld all of these ingredients into the TOC’s in a timely and integrated way will require many changes to the nexus of current rules, standards and funding mechanisms that have formed the “invisible hand” shaping development, not to mention significant cultural changes.  Covid 19 may be the urgent driver in disrupting a well-oiled machine designed to produce the fragmented car dependent reality we no longer desire.

A current Brampton example is providing an excellent opportunity to develop a new transit-oriented 20 minute neighbourhood that possesses all of these desired elements. The developer Riocan has w proposed to convert its Shoppers World Mall into a new urban neighbourhood for approx. 10,000 residents on a 60 acre site at the temporary terminus of the new LRT line extending up Hurontario. I have been working intensely with city, regional and School Board staff and the developer on the integration of all of the community hub and park at the heart of this emerging neighbourhood and its integration into the adjacent existing neighbourhoods and the trail system along the Etobicoke Creek.

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The existing condition is made up of the multiple solitudes shown below , specialized environments designed for one group or purpose- shopping, single family homes, condos, rental housing – tenuously  linked only by a car trip to a garage or parking space. The separating distances are not great and in theory walkable but the psychological disconnects are stark.

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This is an illustration of the emerging 20 minute neighbourhood plan. It creates a centre anchored by the LRT transit station, the park and the community hub with green links into the surrounding single family neighborhoods.

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The second diagram highlights the elements that together provide the armature for a new generation of development which will occur over several decades and now involves 6 developers.

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Within this framework very block and building is a chess piece in a larger game and has a role to play beyond itself, with the potential to extend invitations beyond the property or contract line. As this happens the voids and no man’s lands fill in. There is an enhanced sense of place making walking the preferred way of getting from A to B.  In the end an acid test will be can the kids walk or ride their bikes to school.

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Working with architect Don Schmitt, consultant Karen Pitre and the University of Toronto’s School of Cities we have been prototyping the community hubs, with numerous iterations along the way to test new ways of sharing space and facilities, to make sure that the core program elements – including schools, libraries, community centres can work together harmoniously within a shared building and externally in their park settings. Below are sample exterior and interior views.

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We are looking to create an architecture and landscape of conviviality which builds resilience and social capital, again back to the learning from Covid 19. In some ways the most important spaces are the places where community members will come together informally and be able to ‘hang out’.  We understand that this in between spaces not assigned to a specific function is a key to both our mental and physical health as evidenced by the unprecedented use of public space during this time, expressing the intense desire to see and be seen even as we are urged to keep apart.

One of the greatest learnings from this exercise is that it takes unprecedented levels of collaboration across disciplinary and functional lines, as well as motivated staff and political leadership to break the mold and innovate.

Below a group of Brampton staff from many departments and agencies went on a site visit together to see the Canoe Landing project under construction and gain a better understanding of how it works.

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One of the most encouraging things has been the almost universal appeal of this liberating concept of the 20 minute neighbourhood and community hub, bringing together a broad array of potential partners across many sectors who have seen an opportunity to participate including those shown below.

The goal for this Brampton project is not just to create an exceptional one-off solution but a replicable model for realizing the city’s vision for sustainable, equitable, walkable, transit oriented  development. This kind of initiative is occurring simultaneously throughout the broader region spurred by a collective learning curve.

The move to the walkable neighbourhood in post-war suburbs speaks profoundly to what it means to be healthy and human in the city.  I believe we have a unique advantage at this moment living in what is the perhaps the most diverse city region in the world.  Covid 19 has propelled an acknowledgement of our place in the natural world and our interdependence in the city as a shared collectivity. We have something to prove in terms of making that work and the means to do so as we continue to seek ways of living together in cities which are more sustainable, resilient and equitable.