Daphne Bramham in the Vancouver Sun and Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times work through what we are all thinking about~what is this new normal? And for how long will this last? As Daphne directly states:

“There’s only one certainty, the experts tells us each day. If you don’t come into contact with the virus, you won’t get it and you won’t pass it on.”

This was the same strategy that was adopted in New York City during the 1918 Flu Epidemic to limit transmission of that virus. In that case, the bacillus that caused the infection was absent from the cultures taken. Like today there was no antidote to stop the flu. It was places like New York City  that instituted  a “robust” and organized public health infrastructure, distanced the healthy from the infected,  and maintained public health campaign and  disease surveillance that had lower mortality rates.

The self isolation that was so successful in 1918 can today stop the virus from exponentially spreading.  Today most people are experiencing the new “oneness” with themselves or  with immediate family members.  That does not mean you can’t walk or cycle, just not in proximity to other people. Simon Fraser University gerontologist and planner Andrea Sara has created the hashtag #GoForAWalk to remind people to get out of their living quarters.

Michael Kimmelman observes that traditionally we “seek solace in religion, sports, entertainment and in the promise that modern science and societies provide all the tools needed to solve any problem.”

It is unusual that we look to changing our own behaviour and use of space to be part of the solution. But that is what is being asked of us as schools, services, shops and the accoutrements of daily life shutter like the page of a science fiction novel.

It also takes a direct hit on how we use outdoor space, and also shows how public space is basically designed for groups of people to congregate in, not for individuals. It is  a telling thing that images of great well loved public spaces that are internationally recognized are shown to be empty. They were never designed for solitary solace, for a person or two to tuck in a corner here and there. Instead they were drawn up in the grand manner accommodating groups of people together, making the solitary oneness required by this pandemic  uncomfortable and awkward, like a solitary tulip bulb planted in a barren garden.

While there is sure to be a discussion about the antiurban and antisocial characteristics of the pandemic in changing normally social discourse and use of space, there is also something else very evident~we don’t design public space to embrace our temporary oneness.

That also precludes many people who just happen to be one, including some of our most vulnerable. They are also the folks that do not have the apparatuses of modern life, without connective devices for social media and contact. For those people closing the libraries down is devastating. Like parks,  libraries are the only other place where everyone is welcomed to use space equally.

While “oneness” for many is temporary, that’s not universally the case. One of the outcomes of the pandemic is to rethink how parks and places can be more inclusive of the “oneness” experience.  How do we ensure that public space is  useful and convenient for everyone?






  1. A zoonotic event between species occurred Nov. 17, 2019 in Wuhan China producing a new pandemic virus hosted by the human population and subsequently named Covid-19. The virus rapidly spread across the globe carried by air travellers. As the virus spread, public space became empty space and population density became a health risk. Travel spaces became risky places: trains, planes, ferries, buses, taxis, washrooms, elevators. Places of group assembly closed. Supply lines began to fracture, scarcities appeared, layoffs swelled and people became edgy. The tenuous security of our modern compact, high density, mixed use city became self evident.

    1. Certainly the self-isolation model is better met by the suburban built form. You have you own yard for fresh air and recreation. Drive thru windows can dispense food. Big box stores can deliver goods to your car waiting in their parking lot. Basically everything that makes living in a city desireable has come to a halt (sporting events, culture, festivals etc). I wonder if we will see a paradigm shift because of this?

        1. Nice that you think so, but there are deflection points in urban history and this is likely one of them. For example, riding public transit is looking less appealing by the day.

          1. I consider this an excellent test to improve our science, threat identification, medical and political responses and societal resilience. We’re going to learn an awful lot and are lucky that this isn’t a more serious bug with which to gain these lessons. But it’s not going to make urban people want to gravitate to drive-thru culture any more than they’re going to choose to poke their eyes out with a sharp stick. You and Jolson seem to think the city is a horrible place that people don’t actually like to live in. I wouldn’t trade walking, biking and transiting to my urban activities for car-dependency no matter how many times there are interruptions. Suburbanites never get the pleasure at the best of times.

            The main issue here is the speed of infection and whether the local health care systems can handle a massive upfront spike. This is true whether you live in the city where the large medical facilities are or in some bumpkin town where you need to drive for an hour or more to get treatment. It remains to be seen who fares better.

            Furthermore there is justified speculation that these diseases are coming from rural areas in the first place, where livestock and wild animals interfere and create a bridge from uncontrolled animal to humans. It’s one more reason not to eat meat – not one more reason to avoid cities.

            And who is creating the solutions, from data collection and dissemination to epidemiology to drug and other health treatments and vaccines? It is highly educated people that got their education in or near cities in tight-nit and close quarters.

            You asked if there would be a paradigm shift from urban to rural/suburban based on this threat. My answer is still simple.


          2. Others disagree with you:

            Coronavirus Reveals the Downsides of Urbanization
            …the dark side of urbanization has always included infectious disease. Humans did not evolve to live in such close proximity. Close physical contact spreads germs, which is why medieval and early-modern cities were so pestilential. London became the first city to break two million people in the early 1800s, and it suffered terrible outbreaks of cholera (then a brand-new disease) in the following decades. While sanitation has solved many of the old problems of disease, apartment buildings and mass transit still force people together in much closer quarters than houses and cars. And today, the most densely packed Western cities face the greatest risk, with Paris and San Francisco taking the extreme step of “shelter-in-place” orders, and New York’s mayor openly pondering the same thing….

          3. I’m hardly concerned that people disagree with me.

            And I’m not surprised that there are city-haters out there and that they can always find an angle to support their cause. They ignore, of course, the massive increase in consumption, energy use, carbon emissions and land degradation that comes with sprawl. And they ignore the rural bridge that jumped these diseases to humans in the first place. They also ignore the huge increase in knowledge when people are clustered together and can easily exchange ideas. They are cherry picking to suit their message.

            Arts, culture, invention, and scientific breakthroughs are, with some exceptions, created in places where people live in close proximity.

            It remains to be seen who will come out of this crisis in better shape, but a shelter-in-place-order isn’t so much different than the self-imposed shelter in place that suburban/rural living is all about all the time. A short time being limited in your access to the city in a crisis is still better than no access at all. Meanwhile, if things get too bad, these orders don’t take long to filter through to adjacent suburban areas too. So what are you going to do? Sit in your back yard? Yippy! I wouldn’t trade for it myself.

          4. “Meanwhile, if things get too bad, these orders don’t take long to filter through to adjacent suburban areas too.”

            Not long at all, as it turned out. California just issued a statewide shelter in place order. Including all those rural areas.

          5. “The dark side of urbanization…”

            Yes, and also the ancient and so discredited by modern medical science and hygiene side of urbanization that largely defeats the dark side, except where it is not practiced enough today.

      1. The suburbs are not any less immune from this or any other bug. As for getting out into the fresh air, urban parks and streetscapes are just as effective. Suburban drug stores with much-needed pharmacies and (hopefully available) cleaning supplies are arguably more exposed to the virus because people usually have to walk through an additional enclosed space called a mall to get there. Most urban pharmacies open directly to the street. I take a daily walk on my local urban streets and parks, but do away from taking transit.

        Look at the more deadly Spanish Flu in 1918. That one killed my Romanian homesteader great aunt and uncle on a farm in Northern Alberta (with vast amounts more wide open space than any suburban backyard) just 12 years after they immigrated. Their 3-year old daughter — my father’s cousin — survived and was adopted by a couple from California. She searched for her long lost family for decades after, then finally found them in the late 60s through a last-resort letter to the postmaster in Stry AB., who responded by saying he knew her parents. It was an emotional reunion that summer, to say the least.

        Interestingly, her son preceded them by a few weeks. He was an American hippy dodging the Vietnam War draft and was on his way to Russia, Ukraine and Romania where he visited some of the original farms his family came from. He settled on a farm back in Canada for years just outside of Calgary where us Canadian hippie cousins liked to drop in, always welcome. He went back to California when the amnesty on draft dodgers was declared.

      2. Not a paradigm shift for most Realtors in rural areas are reporting VERY HIGH INTEREST in rural properties, though.

        Lots of soul searching. Lots of discussions.

        A new balance of density vs spaciousness has to be found.

        *Deleted as per editorial policy

        1. Though it’s going to be difficult to tease out the exact numbers, I’ve been watching the infection rates for Vancouver Coastal and for the rest of the province since this began. And the infections per capita are nearly identical. So the idea that transmission is higher in dense areas is probably pure rubbish.

          Add to that observation that the Vancouver region has way more flow-though of visitors than the rest of the province and one can make an argument that our dense area are actually doing better than our more rural areas that aren’t subject to so many strangers passing through.

          Running off to hide in the woods might work for a few people. It’s not going to change a society that benefits so much from cities.

      3. shift? interactive evolutionary processes will redistribute populations across the landscape. we will stop talking about mass transit and talk more about teleportation. zoom is an early example of this technology which will allow office workers to live anywhere in the countryside. drones will become the principle transportation technology. international travel will be book ended with 14 day quarantines, tourism will disappear as an industry, global trade will shrink as nations seek to secure supply chains and manufacturing capacity within their own borders, economies will rebuild around new green technology, we will no longer be a consumer society, we will all but eliminate carbon emissions, the biosphere will begin to heal, we will hear the birds singing, we will see the stars at night.

        1. Seems like a lot of unlikely scenarios. More likely to have international treaties on epidemic transparency. Failure to be a part of the treaty or showing disregard for its rules will severely limit travel from those countries.

          Let’s hope that consumerism is reduced – seems likely – and that over-dependence on global trade will be diminished. But that’s a two edged sword. It’s great to be self-sufficient and improve our domestic economies. But it also leaves you vulnerable to localized catastrophe if you’ve decimated international supply chains.

          Let’s also hope that the cheapened version of tourism is replaced with a more meaningful version of travel and exploration as it gets more expensive and, possibly, more restrictive. Fewer trips but for longer.

          No doubt more people will find more ways to work from home and more companies will happily offload some of that cost onto their employees – at least for part of their work time. The trend toward more higher density mixed-use communities will continue. I doubt this will lead to a more rural living condition. And the suburbs have been hit harder than the city. Fraser Health has surpassed Vancouver Coastal for cases.

          But you’re correct about a greening of tech/infrastructure. The old dirty energy sources and technologies are going to be increasingly unattractive as medium to long term investments.

          It’s too early to say for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if peak oil demand is behind us. If it takes many years to recover economically, those will be critical years in the growth of alternatives that had just barely begun to be a serious threat to the fossils. It’s not that we won’t be using fossils for quite a while yet, but that its decline was imminent even before this crisis. This will just speed up the process.

  2. There would be more opportunity for muggers and rapists if you have closed off little corners in parks and public spaces – not really advisable.

  3. Perhaps we can broaden this discussion on for public spaces on:

    *hygiene, differing sanitation standards in public spaces.. we talk about transportation efficiency, great architecture (or not so good) , public art, livability, housing issues…but there hasn’t been much here on the former topic.
    Above is public education and community controls entertwined with use of public space
    *above changes in personal behaviour and habits in public spaces and in our own lives
    *awareness of self-sufficiency locally vs. interdependencies in our food chain more broadly
    *tourism and does this change anything for future in our relationships as a host city/country or as a visitor
    personal privacy vs. collection of more info. for public good/monitoring

  4. Do something positive in this emergency instead of continuing to spread your obsessive anti-suburbia prattle as if nothing else matters. Listen to the medical professionals. Covid-19 is not a bug (“lucky that this isn’t a more serious bug”) it is a deadly disease, people are dying. It is transmitted via aerosol or direct contact with an infected person who may not even present symptoms, this is why Health Canada recommends social distancing.

    I observe that you can not ride in an elevator and meet the social distancing criteria at the same time. If you are living in a high rise building, trying to isolate yourself and in need of medical supplies or food you need to consider your options.

    New York City, one of the densest cities in the world has a high infection rate because density and elevators are vectors in the transmission of this disease. New York City is now on complete lockdown for that very reason.

    No one will be safe until we have a vaccine.

    1. Do something positive in this emergency instead of continuing to spread your obsessive anti-city prattle as if nothing else matters. The Corona Virus is a bug – a serious bug, but it could be a much more serious bug. People are dying, like they die every day of the flu or car crashes. So far, the number of people dying is still small compared to car crashes which hit suburban people far more than urban ones. What makes this one nastier is it’s quick spread that caught most everybody off guard.

      Yes, we should all do our part to contain this virus. That goes for people in the suburbs as much as people in the city. One can still ride elevators but should definitely avoid it if they are sneezing or coughing. If you’re sick, get friends to help with groceries etc. Wash your hands. A lot! You don’t get this from looking at people or even breathing near people otherwise it would be much much worse. The 2m distance is something everybody should be trying to do where possible. But that doesn’t mean nobody can get in an elevator.

      Most people will be safe even without a vaccine. Most people are not having debilitating symptoms.

    2. Jolson, this is anecdotal so please take it with a grain of salt. But I think you’ll find there is truth to it. We’ve all heard about the hoarding that has been going on, leaving supermarket shelves bare. Costco seems to be mentioned a lot. A suburban style soul-destroying supermarket. I’ve certainly seen evidence at my local (not Costco) supermarket but nothing to the extremes we’re hearing about and many people are experiencing. I live on the fringe of downtown where some people still drive.

      (It annoys me to no end that I would get my parking refunded if I drove, and therefore I pay for other people’s nasty habits with each purchase. But that’s another story – sort of.)

      Meanwhile, I dropped in to Choices on Davie and Richards, the heart of the densest part of our city, and everything was as normal as can be. No bare shelves. No long lines. No overflowing shopping carts. No evidence of hoarding.

      I spoke yesterday to a friend who lives a block away from that supermarket. While she confirmed the lack of hoarder mentality, she also talked about the quiet streets with minimal traffic – not minimal people. People like Jolson want everybody to live in their sprawly suburban car-dependent, anti-social neighbourhoods but they have no qualms about imposing their car-dependent noise, stench and carnage on the neighbourhoods of others. The residents of Yaletown are surely not imposing their lifestyle on those who live in some mind-numbing, single use ticky-tacky suburban street in one of our suburban type areas.

  5. I was tempted to quote a long forgotten writer (E.B. White?) who once said that stultifying and monochromatically planned suburbia is a repository for dead souls, or something to that effect. Then I remembered attending a soiree at one of my partner’s former co-worker’s big anonymous Coquitlam box where the owners proudly showed off the master bedroom with smiles on their faces. It had a mirrored ceiling and there was huge, studio-sized video camera mounted on a tripod in the corner. 😉

Leave a Reply to Jolson Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *