Planning cities for people

When most people think of smart cities, they think of data and technology. Automated vehicles running off 5G towers. Traffic and pedestrian movement translated to data sets that manage for real-time responses in urban flows. Tech hubs built as economic drivers and innovation platforms. While smart cities use technology as a tool to collect data and gain insights for the betterment of individuals and communities, technology is just that – a tool.

The COVID-19 pandemic is giving us the opportunity to examine the health of our cities from various dimensions. It’s giving us the chance to redefine what it means to build smart cities that are resilient in the face of crisis.

This pandemic, above all, is reminding us that cities were built for people.

Moving people through our cities

This past weekend was the May long weekend and the weather in Toronto, for the most part, was in our favour. As we’re seeing restrictions being lifted, The City closed 57km of streets to allow more room for pedestrians and bicyclists. Moving forward, weekend closures will continue. This is a trend we’re seeing around the world as cities are responding to a need for how we get around to change as people return to work. Biking and walking will have to replace pubic transit in many instances if we’re going to continue physical distancing on buses, streetcars, and subways.

While the idea of a 15-Minute Neighbourhood isn’t new, the concept makes sense now, more than ever. In this type of city planning, proximity is key. People could walk or bike to work in 15 minutes, and they could go to a park, cafe, grocery store or school in the same amount of time. By reducing car use, we’d make our cities more walkable and see a reduction in air pollution. Long arduous car commutes to and from work would become a thing of the past, allowing people to find a better balance between work and play. Considering the fact that many companies have successfully moved their businesses online in the blink of an eye, it isn’t far-fetched to think that many teams will choose to work remotely into the future. Some companies could opt to use neighbourhood coworking spaces as required rather than calling a single office space home, thereby greatly reducing the need for talent to travel for work. 

Taking care of our most vulnerable populations

Cities are defined by their high-density development, which is why the 15-Minute Neighbourhood concept works as an efficient urban system. However, with the rapid spread of COVID-19 happening in cities around the world, many are questioning if we should be living in high-density spaces that increase our likelihood of interacting with others and spreading the virus. Pointing the blame at density though, isn’t considering the bigger picture.

“The issue of transfer of this disease doesn’t seem to be density itself, it tends to be the inequalities that are associated with living in a major metropolitan area…both in terms of the jobs that [poorer] people are working and the additional need they have to use public transit to get around.” Patrick Condon, professor at University of British Columbia’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture.

For instance, the outbreak in New York has proven to be worse in lower-density boroughs. Meanwhile, richer high population centres like Manhattan have been “relatively spared.” Building affordable housing on the outskirts of higher income areas is placing our most vulnerable populations to the periphery of access to the employment opportunities, services and amenities they need the most. These populations are also typically living with preexisting health conditions caused by inadequate living conditions. Our cities need longer term solutions that put affordable housing closer to places of employment and healthcare facilities that promote the well-being of our most vulnerable populations.

Smart Cities are Shared Cities

Cities have aways been creative and economic hubs rooted in diversity. The world’s best cities are diverse destinations that appeal to locals and visitors alike by being places people want to live, work and play in. They revolve around a human-centred approach to life through inclusive design that speaks to how the diversity of its population uses buildings and public spaces. As people’s needs change over time, smart design and operations allow communities and cities to evolve together. The very fact that our cities are diverse contributes to their resiliency – their ability to adapt to changing circumstances is akin to how a living organism naturally adapts as its circumstances change.

Smart cities reflect their communities’ needs and desires through strategic community outreach and engagement. This involves ensuring that a cross-section of the population has a seat at the table to provide feedback to a diversity of design professionals who can use this real-world perspective to design places, spaces and systems. On top of considering the poor in our cities, we also need to design for a quickly aging population, youth, those with disabilities and other underrepresented groups. By designing cities as spaces to be shared by all populations, we design cities that are healthier in the long-run as they consider how all segments of society can be supported. Community-based organizations are one way that underrepresented groups can have their voice heard to ensure that our cities are inclusive for all. 

The COVID pandemic has forced us to embrace a lot of emergency measures very quickly. If anything, it has taught us that we can make big collective changes, fast. The key is to take this learning and apply it to long-term thinking about how we continue to evolve our cities into smarter cities that empower and support people and communities.