COVID Place making
May 27, 2020

The biggest non-story of the covid emergency

When I first saw the news report in early March, I was astonished: the City and Park Board, in conjunction with the Coastal Health Authority, would be using two community centres to temporarily house the otherwise homeless from the Downtown east Side.  What was jaw-dropping were the locations: in the centre of two of the most affluent communities in Vancouver, one less than a block from an elementary school – the Roundhouse in Yaletown and the other in Coal Harbour.

In normal circumstances, that decision would have been explosive. In non-covid times, it just would not have happened.  There would have been an immediate pushback from Yaletown and Coal Harbour residents and businesses – a call for more process, for community meetings, for public hearings and delegations.  And those would have been the polite responses.  Sides would be taken, the media coverage relentless, the politics divisive. A risk-adverse Council would have found a way, in the name of community consultation, to deep-six the proposal.

And yet, here it is, the consequence of a crisis most clearly not wasted.

The spaces at Roundhouse and Coal Harbour will be allotted by referral-only and staffed 24 hours a day. Vancouver Coastal Health will provide health guidance and B.C. Housing has appointed non-profit operators to manage the centres.  (The Sun)

But that wasn’t all. Those housed would also be provided with ‘safe supply’ – drugs and their substitutes to stabilize the addicted, in addition to distancing them from the virus in what would otherwise be a powder-keg in the Downtown East Side.  (That a covid outbreak has so far not occurred is another surprising non-event.)

Remarkably, this was all public knowledge:

(Mayor) Stewart said the federal government has allowed for a safe supply of drugs for residents of the Downtown Eastside.

Beyond the health consequences, the stakes were huge.  If this real-time, real-life exercise failed, it would set back any prospect of locating a similar facility anywhere else in the city, as well as negating the ongoing experiment of safe-supply.  And it wouldn’t take much: a single adverse incident, open needle use, an exchange of threats much less an actual incident.  On the other hand, if successful, it would deny precedent for an endlessly repeated bad example.

It’s only the end of May; the emergency continues, the community centres are still blacked out.  As an experiment that set out to do what it has so far accomplished, it succeeded – a word rarely associated with the DTES and homelessness.  Indeed, many activists are adverse to acknowledging that the actions they espouse, when implemented, achieve their goals.  Fearful that success might lead to complacency, a loss of commitment, a reduction in budgets, they might begrudgingly admit that an initiative, a new housing project, a raise in funding was a good first step, but there’s so much left to do, so many homeless still on the streets, and the filthy streets themselves an indictment of an uncaring society.

The Roundhouse and Coal Harbour experiment remain, so far, an unacknowledged success.  Friends in the neighbourhood report that until recently there was seemingly community acceptance of the circumstances – perhaps because the locations are only temporary.

But of course, that was unlikely to last.  Further uptown, things were changing.

(More to come.)

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At the City of Vancouver where Council meetings  are turning out to be more of a cave spelunking expedition through the finer points of  Robert’s  Rules of Order, there’s been   well meaning motions to consider alcohol in public places and parks. The point ably made is that in terms of equity, not everyone has their own back yard  or outside space to drink a beer in during the pandemic.  Of course lots of people are already ingeniously decanting and imbibing in parks and public spaces, it’s just not sanctioned. Yet.

Master of municipalities CBC’s Justin McElroy has a two minute video on the CBC twitter site mulling over the possibility of “you being able to crack open a cold one in a place like Dude Chilling Park”.

One main  point missing in this idea of allowing individuals to carry their own alcoholic beverages to beaches, parks and city spaces.  People drinking alcohol will need to use washroom facilities more frequently. Where are the washrooms?

I have written over several years about why we need to have accessible public washrooms because every member of the public needs to go. It seems odd that during the pandemic we should not  be considering the universal installation of drinking fountain/water bottle stations, hand washing facilities, and of course, public washrooms before any provision regarding alcohol.

Lloyd Alter in Tree Hugger is even blunter, saying that we have to stop building roads and start building bathrooms. He equates the lack of washrooms with that of the budget for highways: “Authorities say providing public washrooms can’t be done because it would cost “hundreds of millions” but never have a problem spending billions on the building of highways for the convenience of drivers who can drive from home to the mall where there are lots of washrooms. The comfort of people who walk, people who are old, people who are poor or sick — that doesn’t matter.”

Lloyd Alter points out that post pandemic  washrooms that are touchless and sterilized will be important, and private companies, Starbucks and shopping stores  are not responsible for providing them.

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It’s taken a few months, but now we have some action.  This just out from the City of Vancouver –

On May 22, we’ll start installing 12 km of Slow Streets signs and barriers. Other routes across the city will be added in the coming weeks.

Slow Streets – routes for walking, cycling, and rolling that make it easier to exercise and access businesses in your local neighbourhood.

  • Motor vehicle access is limited to local traffic only.
  • People walking may pass each other using the roadway.
  • Drive slowly and watch for people on the road.
  • On-street parking, access for emergency vehicles, and waste/recycling collection is maintained.

Have your say

In a few weeks, we’ll be asking the public for ideas and feedback on how to make these routes more comfortable for walking, cycling, and rolling. Using input from residents and businesses, we’ll make adjustments and improvements at key locations.

Questions? Email us at

It appears that this choice of route – entirely through the east side and a diversity of neighbourhoods – was seen through an equity lens.  That’s council-speak to make sure the voices of their support are heard.

This Slow Street route builds on the already-established leg-and-wheel networks – notably 37th Avenue, the Ridgeway Greenway.  Not only did 37th Avenue get priority when greenways were first funded in the 1990s, it was given extra special treatment with a lot of small interventions – traffic calming, parklets, art, landscaping – with funding that might otherwise have gone to an extension of greenways through the West Side.  But some residents there were fearful of the idea – something bringing outsiders through their neighbourhood – and didn’t really see a need.  Most of their streets were already lush and green.

The City happily spent the money east of Granville.

But after the Beach Flow Way was done in the West End, the next one this time had to be east of Granville too.

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America Walks is hosting a new webinar,  In Praise of Walking: A New Scientific Exploration – a conversation with author and neuroscientist Shane O’Mara.

Author Shane O’Mara has just released  ‘In Praise of Walking: A New Scientific Exploration’. As a neuroscientist and walking advocate, O’Mara takes us on an evolutionary journey through how we started walking, the magical mechanics of it, and how we find our way around the world. It also explores walking in relation to repairing our mental and social health, sparking creativity, and how walking in concert can be coupled with critical policy change.

This one-on-one webinar is sure to inform your walking and walkability work and ethos, and we have built in ample time for questions and answers. This webinar is intended for those just starting out on the walking path as well as those interested in learning more about the topic.

Shane O’Mara is Professor of Experimental Brain Research (Personal Chair) at Trinity College, Dublin – the University of Dublin. He is a Principal Investigator in the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience and is also a Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator. His research explores the brain systems supporting learning, memory, and cognition, and also the brain systems affected by stress and depression, and he has published more than 140 peer-reviewed papers in these areas.
He is a graduate of the National University of Ireland – Galway, and of the University of Oxford (DPhil). Heis an elected Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science (USA), and an elected Member of the Royal Irish Academy.

Webinar Date/Time: June 3rd, 2020

Time: 10 a.m. Pacific Time

REGISTER HERE at this link.

You can learn more about America Walks and this webinar here.





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CNU – the Congress for the New Urbanism – has just provided an extensive list of cities that have transformed underutilzed streets with little traffic into temporary pedestrian and bicycle thoroughfares, shared streets, bikeways, expanded sidewalks, and outdoor eating.

“Although these projects are temporary, they may lead to permanent changes in cities, Mike Lydon (of Street Plans Collaborative) said in a recent Smart Growth America presentation.

There are seven types of projects.

Here’s one:

Temporary bikeways. There is a huge surge of bicycling worldwide because people are avoiding buses and trains … and many cities are adding temporary bikeways.

Examples include Berlin, Germany; New York City, Paris, France: Auckland, New Zealand; Mexico City; Budapest, Hungary; Brampton, Ontario.

The article lists cities from around the world, as well as extensive references to other ones in the U.S. and Canada.  Except one.  One city is notable by its absence.


When Brampton gets listed and we don’t, that is embarrassing.


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How Is Grandma Really Doing? Caring for Elders in Our Community
Join us and be part of a conversation about the ways we care for our elders.

The impact of COVID-19 on seniors and elders has revealed how our communities support them and, in some ways, have failed them. Indigenous, South Asian and other communities have prioritized their elders and have taken great strides to honour and protect them during COVID-19. At the same time, daily news briefings tell us of outbreaks in care facilities and gaps in the care our elders are receiving. What can we learn from different communities’ approaches and how can we all do better at bridging generation gaps?

The pandemic has shone a spotlight on where our mainstream gaps are, how we as a society care about and care for our older generations, and where we need to improve. What are we learning about our care systems right now, and how do we incorporate improvements going forward?

Special Guests:

Isobel Mackenzie, Provincial Seniors Advocate
Andrew Wister, Director, SFU Gerontology Research Centre
Tony Robinson, Executive Director, Nisga’a Ts’amiks Vancouver Society
Alison Silgardo, Chief Executive Officer, Seniors Services Society of BC
Anthony Kupferschmidt, West End Seniors’ Network
Nimrita Bains, Progressive Intercultural Community Services Society
The event will include breakout conversations where we will invite you to share your thoughts with fellow participants and guests.

When Thursday, May 21, 2020

12:00 – 1:15 PM


Online Event
A link and password to join the event will be sent to registrants via Eventbrite.

You can access free tickets here.


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Sandy James and I were both struck by Daphne Bramham’s recent column in The Sun.  She asked the question many have been wondering:

By the end of May, Seattle will have permanently banned cars from more than 30 kilometres of city streets, making permanent a temporary response to the COVID-19 pandemic’s imperative that people maintain physical distance.

In Vancouver? The city has closed a single street — Beach Avenue along English Bay — and parking lanes on 10 streets to allow space for people to wait to enter the few stores that are open. …

While other jurisdictions have acted boldly and swiftly, Vancouver council’s pandemic response has been slow and muddled.

It’s true, there’s not a lot of overt enthusiasm from Council on reallocating street space, even when it seems to be a win-win-win: good for local community, climate change, active transport and good health.  Council is supportive of all that, of course; they’re just not rah-rah.  Maybe it’s too Visiony, too associated with different politics and priorities. Urban design is not the Mayor’s forte.

It’s not that Council has failed to articulate its ambition.  With recognition of a climate emergency and the approval of Six Big Moves, Council committed to accelerating things we coincidentally need to do now to respond to the covid emergency.  Here’s what they moved just one year ago:

That Council accelerate the existing sustainable transportation target by 10 years, so that by 2030, two thirds of trips in Vancouver will be by active transportation and transit …

The pandemic response seemed the obvious time to compress that 10-year commitment into a month.  And it looked, briefly, that the City and Park Board were on their way.  In what seemed like a weekend (but must have involved a lot of preliminary planning), Park Drive in Stanley Park and Beach Avenue were turned into flow ways with cones, signs and not much consultation.

But in the weeks that followed, except for a few queuing lanes in commercial zones … not much.

As Daphne noted, that required ignoring a lot of what was happening in the rest of the world.

All through March and April, city after city announced a slow or open street strategy of some kind.  From Oakland to Milan, from Edmonton to Seattle, Vancouver was practically surrounded by ambitious plans and responses.  Yet in that time, no enthusiastic embrace from the Mayor of Vancouver, even when the mayors of Toronto and New York, after initial tepid responses, came back with more ambitious agendas for immediate action.  Not Vancouver.

Little response emerged from City Hall until late April when, surprisingly*, NPA councillor Lisa Dominato came forward with a call for action – and a motion to instruct staff to do two big things:

  • Expedite identifying and implementing reallocations of road space
  • Come back in the fall 2020 with options for mobility and public realm use.

The motion made it on to the agenda on Tuesday, May 12, with a briefing before the final vote expected on Wednesday.  CBC reported:

At Wednesday’s city council meeting, conducted via conference call, senior Vancouver staffers mapped out a vision for “short-term actions for long-term transformations” of city streets in response to the health crisis.

The coming weeks will see 50 kilometres of Vancouver roads designated as “slow streets” with traffic-calming measures to promote walking, rolling and cycling, while other side streets could be closed to car traffic altogether to make way for temporary plazas.

An easy vote, one would think – an opportunity for Council to reinforce the city’s leadership in sustainable transportation.  Vancouver has been a world leader in what are now called complete, open or slow streets – from the traffic calming in the 1970s, to the greenways and bikeways of the 1990s, to the reallocation of street space on bridges and arterials in the 2000s.  We had the experience, the staff and the political will – and here was a chance for the Mayor and Council to make their mark.

Instead, when the motion finally came up for debate, hours were taken up addressing the issue in the Downtown East Side, a neighbourhood that,

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Reopening Vancouver: People, Streets, Food & Cars

How do we maintain safe physical distancing practices when enjoying the city?

On a typical commercial street’s 3.5-metre-wide sidewalk, two pedestrians can safely pass each other with two metres between them. However, couples must go single file when passing to maintain a safe distance.

Some suggest that this space can be found beyond the curb, in the parking lane. Perhaps we could create more curbside parklets, now seen in front of a few restaurants and coffee houses. Parking spaces could become umbrella-sheltered restaurant patios – think of a trattoria in Italy.

One of the earliest examples of space reallocation and pedestrian use of a parking lane: the hundred-block Lonsdale in the City of North Vancouver

Perhaps we could create more curbside parklets, now seen in front of a few restaurants and coffee houses. Parking spaces could become umbrella-sheltered restaurant patios – think of a trattoria in Italy.

Cities from Oakland to Paris are turning hundreds of kilometres of these streets into “slow streets,” with signs limiting cars, letting pedestrians, cyclists and people who use mobility aids use the street to move and get physical activity safely. Could we do the same with Vancouver’s greenway network?


Presenters include


Wednesday, May 20

12:00 pm

Hosted online.  Registration required  (currently full),  

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As a consequence of flattening the covid curve:

… we’ll also have to flatten these curves:

The hand-drawn chart above reveals the obvious: the morning and evening rush-hour peaks coming in and out of the CBD. Even though the chart was done in the late-1970s, the TV helicopters tell us it’s still true twice a day.  At least they did until March 16.

Of course there has been one big change: there are less cars coming into the CBD than a half century ago:

Why is that green line below the blue one?  Transit mainly.  No SkyTrain or Frequent Transit Network back before Expo 86 – and since then, the region has largely accommodated growth in transportation demand by expanding transit supply.  That allowed the existing road network to serve a larger population, increased jobs and more demands without having to build a lot more road space.

Simply put: without transit, the road system doesn’t work.  Transit was our way of both serving population growth and taming motordom without having to build and expand the freeway and arterial network.  It didn’t reduce congestion very much (as any commuter will attest) since drivers took advantage of a free good – road space – and pretty much filled it to the maximum anyway.

So what happens post-covid? Here’s a simple thought experiment, based on nothing but speculation.  (That’s why PT asked for someone to model this.)

Transit has seen a drop in ridership of 80 percent.  Past experience, even today in China, tells us that it will take some time for ridership to recover.  And even if it does, there will be a lot less capacity to accommodate transit users, given the need for physical distancing.

Let’s be generous and say half the riders in that 80 percent drop return to transit.  The other half decide to drive.  They’ll certainly have the rationale: transit can be crowded and contagious, cars are clean and spacious, gas is cheap and roads are free.

There are also pluses and minuses to consider: how many will work from home, or not have any work to commute to?  How much road space, particularly curb lanes, will be repurposed, especially to allow more distancing for pedestrians, cyclists and restaurant patios?  How many job locations will disperse from the centre (and will that alleviate or worsen congestion)?

But here’s the critical question: what will be the impact on the roads and bridges of those additional numbers that do begin to commute by car, who will be competing for the modest amount of free road space available, especially if they all want it at roughly the same time?

Well, we should soon find out.

For that matter, it won’t be just commuters in vehicles.  Commuters in trains too.

Top state and city officials (in New York) are already contemplating the need for radically different routines, including transit systems with limits on occupancy for trains and buses. That could require staggered shifts for millions of workers.

I don’t know that it’s going to be possible to have rush hours,” said Rick Cotton, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates commuter trains to and from Manhattan.*

There really is only one practical way to address the resulting congestion, whether on trains, buses, roads or sidewalks.

Don’t have rush hour.  Flatten that traffic curve.

If in the short term, there’s going to be a net increase in driving, the best case would be a redistribution of traffic across the day and across the network.  Yes, it could in theory be done by road and transit pricing connected to apps that allow people to make informed decisions, adjusted as needed to flatten whatever peaks emerge (somewhat like flattening the covid curve to make sure hospitals are not overwhelmed).

But that assumes a social and political consensus (and the technology) to intervene, to rethink our priorities, make radical changes in how we live our lives, manage our transportation systems and respond to the previously unimaginable. A very unlikely scenario.

Except we just did.


*Why the Path to Reopening New York City Will Be So Difficult


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Toronto’s Janes Walk did a Covid required  shift from their usual fine walks and included an online experience which they could of course share across the country. They had some great virtual walks, some great panels, and they had a plenary opener that included Jan Gehl, who with his writing and his interest in people and places personifies much of what placemaking should be.

In these Covid times it was inspiring to have Jan talk about his perspective on the Covid crisis, and also hear  what the post-Covid city will look like. Jan married  psychologist Ingrid Mundt in 1961. It was her influence that completely changed his work as an architect and as a designer. Jan’s formal training had taught him the importance of modernity in design, with sweeping lawns, high rise buildings and public spaces, but he now sees that as “windy”. They are activated not by people but by weather and perception.

Ingrid’s influence taught him that public space needed to be personable, and in his practice he now sees public space as an important essential service. She also drew his attention to the gap between the built environment and how people FELT about being in places.

In 1965 Jan and Ingrid spent six months in public squares in Italy observing behaviour. An article in the local paper explained why people in Asconi might see a “beatnik” sitting in a corner of one of the town squares. This work became the basis for his books and for his philosophy behind Gehl Architects.

Jan  had a written correspondence with Jane Jacobs, and first met her in 2001. He said one of their central discussions had been about the “New Urbanism” movement, and in Jan’s words “Whether it had clothes or not” or was just a rehash of what was tried and true.

And that brings Jan to the Covid discussion. In Denmark the Covid motto translates to “All have to be close together to stay apart”.

His “doctor daughter” has told Jan that he will be in lock down and physically isolating until the end of the year. With this news Jan and Ingrid Gehl have been going to and exploring various parts of Copenhagen on their own, rediscovering city spaces and revisiting favourites. Jan has an unwavering faith in “Homo sapiens” and says we will have our lively places back. Jan sees the Covid crisis as a wakeup call, asking for redirecting resources to a greener, more sustainable way of living.

Jan expects the following as new trends:

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