Craig Ruttan is the Policy Director for the Toronto Region Board of Trade. Richard Joy is the Executive Director of the Urban Land Institute.

As a second wave of COVID-19 now begins to build in Ontario, we find ourselves asking many questions: Are schools safe to open? Will office culture return? How will restaurants and bars survive a second lockdown? These challenges are very present and, at their heart, connected by the same thing – real barriers to our ability to gather and share space together. With winter upon us and a widely-deployed vaccine still some distance off, we are collectively grappling with what it means to live with COVID in our midst, and how we might adapt our lives and physical spaces to endure until it subsides.

The need to reimagine physical spaces during this pandemic is why the Urban Land Institute (ULI) Toronto and the Toronto Region Board of Trade brought together more than 175 city-building professionals during the summer to think through the social and economic challenges presented by COVID-19, and make nearly 80 pragmatic recommendations for government and businesses. These recommendations are outlined in the recently released “Retrofitting Our Urban Region” Report.

The broad array of ideas that emerged paints a hopeful picture: that targeted interventions can help to make these spaces safer in the near term, as well as more inclusive and resilient for the long term. We highlight five recommendations that have the potential to substantially improve our city and the spaces we share:

1. Make use of underutilized spaces

The report identifies that underutilized academic buildings, retail stores, public spaces and community centres present a tremendous opportunity for government, businesses and civic society to adapt to the challenges of COVID-19. This includes “shoulder lands” – both green and paved spaces that have no assigned uses and could be adapted for winter with tents and heaters, for example. A database of underutilized spaces could be developed to better match organizations to these spaces. This system should be responsive for shorter-term needs such as pop-up retail, spaces for artists and temporary childcare. To speed up the process, a toolkit can be developed that contains standard lease forms and space layout templates.

2. Consider thoughtful layouts and processes

The pandemic has shown us how thoughtfully designed layouts can help reduce the spread of infection. One-way traffic flow, spaced out queuing, simple signage, customer screening, crowd management, physical barriers to limit airborne transmission and improved air quality can protect citizens and re-inspire confidence in consumers. With customer safety being paramount, all businesses should undertake the POST Promise (People Outside Safely Together) as a minimum standard of safety and education.

3. Decentralize to strengthen neighbourhoods

The idea of the “15-minute community,” where all aspects of life can be serviced within 15 minutes, can lead to a lower chance of transmission and a higher quality of life. Transforming some buildings into community hubs would strengthen residential neighbourhoods, adding space where students could attend post-secondary classes virtually and families could access social services. Neighbourhood commons could provide multifunctional indoor and outdoor space for social, economic and community uses. Amenities such as wi-fi, electric outlets, lighting, furniture, washrooms and hand-sanitizing stations would improve the spaces’ usability and support the needs of marginalized individuals.

4. Leverage technology and innovation to deliver multiple wins

Many solutions to the challenges of COVID-19 already exist – including automatic door openers, queue-management solutions and high-functioning HVAC systems. However, not all building managers are aware of what exists and how these technologies could work together. A technology marketplace or demonstration zone could help test the range of solutions and encourage broader adoption of successful innovations. Crucially, these investments should also contribute to other objectives such as reducing carbon emissions and increasing equitable access.

5. Elevate beauty and cultural activity

The arts and culture sector has been hard-hit by the pandemic, but this moment provides an opportunity to artistically reimagine and build vibrant cities. This work could involve increasing design and public art standards for new buildings, including landscape architecture, and forming new partnerships between the cultural and retail sectors. Artists could help improve public and commercial spaces while improving safety measures through making them more enjoyable and beautiful.

COVID-19 has increased the amount of uncertainty in our daily lives. This makes it difficult to plan the upcoming week, let alone predict what our communities will look like in six months. To help navigate through these challenging times, we should remain guided by solutions that both make sense now and contribute to our broader societal goals. By investing in transforming our shared and public spaces, our short-term responses can help build a better and more equitable region for the future.

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Craig Ruttan is policy director for Housing at the Toronto Region Board of Trade.

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