Skip to content

OPINION: A new vision for our towns and cities – what has the COVID-19 pandemic taught us?

In the Bow Valley we don’t have the cachet of urban centres like Toronto, Paris and New York.  But we can learn from them and we too can seize the window of opportunity in the post-pandemic recovery period to create a new vision and re-invent our communities. 

Our small mountain towns are joining the ranks of world-class cities in pedestrianizing streets in the downtown core. 

The Towns of Banff and Canmore are mirroring actions in big cities like Paris, New York and Milan to make more space on downtown streets for people to maintain social distance while enjoying the commercial and recreational activities that our towns have to offer.

Whether this should be a short-term reaction to an immediate problem, or an enduring solution towards addressing deep-rooted challenges in our towns, is worth considering.  

Across the world, measures to control the COVID-19 pandemic have yielded inadvertent but welcome environmental benefits: cleaner air, decreased carbon dioxide emissions, decreased pressures on wildlife. 

People and policymakers have seen what their cities can look like without traffic congestion and air pollution. Liking what they are seeing, and feeling that it was a state worth preserving, they are taking bold action now. 

Milan has accelerated its Strade Aperte (Open Streets) plan by a decade from 2030 to 2020 to transform 35 kilometres of inner-city streets, prioritizing pedestrian and cyclists over motor vehicles. Likewise, Paris is reserving 30 streets and 50 km of car lanes for pedestrians and cyclists, respectively, and Mayor Anne Hidalgo has predicted that some of these changes could become permanent.  

In Canada, several large cities are seizing the window of opportunity presented by post-COVID-19 recovery to accelerate changes to make cities more sustainable, equitable and livable. 

The 2020 Declaration for Resilience in Cities, signed by mayors and chief city planners from Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and Victoria, among others, calls for responsible use of land, decarbonization of transportation systems and sustainability in built and natural environments. 

In the Bow Valley, we do not have big cities with big city problems. However, we have small towns with significant visitation that gives rise to traffic congestion, parking problems, and reduced enjoyment for visitors and locals alike. 

What can we learn from the experience of other urban centres that experience similar problems? 

Reducing vehicle dominance and replacing car-oriented urban spaces with people-oriented spaces have economic, social, cultural and environmental benefits. Bars, restaurants, retailers and artists all benefit from the increased foot traffic, liveliness and sociability of pedestrianized spaces.   

Our Towns also have good intentions for environmental sustainability and written plans for decarbonization, waste diversion and ecosystem preservation. Dates for achieving key targets have been set out to 2050. 

But what we saw in the COVID-19 crisis is that when we are faced with a potentially devastating public health emergency, we can act swiftly and collaboratively in days to weeks to make sure people’s health, lives and livelihoods are protected. 

Why don’t we leverage this success to treat climate change like the public health emergency it is?

Let’s demonstrate that when our house is on fire, we can and will act quickly, decisively and effectively. 

Finally, we need to reinvent our towns so they do not perpetuate the inequities that currently exist.

Built environments such as sidewalks, public buildings and parks need to be accessible to all residents throughout their life.  Children, seniors and people with different physical abilities should feel safe moving about towns during winter and summer. 

Decent, affordable housing is needed to create mixed-income neighbourhoods that reflect the wider population and bridge people from different walks of life. 

Food security and high-quality public transportation benefits everyone, but are essential for people with low incomes to ensure that they have access to good nutrition, employment and recreational opportunities. 

In the Bow Valley, we don’t have the cachet of urban centres like Toronto, Paris and New York.  But we can learn from them and we too can seize the window of opportunity in the post-pandemic recovery period to create a new vision and re-invent our communities. 

Vamini Selvanandan is a family physician and public health practitioner in Alberta.  She currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Canadian Public Health Association and is past Chair of the Bow Valley Primary Care Network.