Skip to content

COVID-19 offers Toronto a rare chance to transform the city

Forget utopian thinking and science-fiction gadgets. Toronto already has the necessary tech, talent and resources to address its gravest problems.

COVID-19 offers Toronto a rare chance to transform the city

Large swaths of Toronto simply weren’t built with people in mind. Just walk the easterly portion of Queens Quay, where the narrow sidewalks force you to step into traffic to evade fellow pedestrians. Condos and apartment buildings tower over homeless encampments. Instead of some sort of greenery, public transit or communal space, there’s the hulking Gardiner Expressway. Then you see Quayside: 12 acres of former industrial shipping land that, until May, was supposed to be the world’s first district “built from the internet up.”

Ever since Sidewalk Labs announced that it would no longer develop this Waterfront Toronto plot, leaders across sectors have lamented Hogtown’s lost opportunity to build a city of the future. But this preoccupation with developing a neighbourhood out of Star Trek serves as a potent metaphor for Toronto’s current crisis of built form. The promise of a gleaming utopia with robotic furniture and self-driving cars ultimately distracted us from the problems that have plagued the city for decades: hazardous streets, a decaying transit system and a severe lack of affordable housing.

The novel coronavirus has only intensified these problems. With the advent of physical distancing, the lack of adequate pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure has become even more pronounced. The TTC is estimating a $520-million shortfall by Labour Day. Human rights activists took the City of Toronto to court after it failed to provide adequate safety measures at shelters early in the pandemic. And let’s not forget this stark statistic: Toronto’s social housing waitlist currently includes more than 102,000 requested units.

We know why Sidewalk Labs came here: Toronto is home to the fastest-growing innovation community in North America, it has strong public education and healthcare, a uniquely diverse population and, of course, prime undeveloped land. The city has the tech, talent and resources to set itself on-course.

In the past, the world’s great urban centres used pandemics as opportunities to create safe (and great) public works. Cholera outbreaks in the 1800s, for example, brought New York’s Central Park, as well as Paris’s cherished boulevards. Similarly, this current crisis offers us that rare chance to transform our city.


Reclaiming public space for the public good

“Public health has always been the foundation of urban planning,” says Jennifer Keesmaat, former chief city planner of Toronto and CEO of The Keesmaat Group. “Some people just forgot.” Keesmaat asserts that “good, safe density” will help us overcome the pandemic and create a higher quality of life. For her, that manifests in simple yet powerful infrastructure like wider walkways, protected bike lanes and open parks.

Some steps have already been taken in the form of the city’s wildly successful ActiveTO program, which has brought 57 kilometres of Quiet Streets and 40 kilometres of new bike lanes. And initiatives like CaféTO, which allows restaurants and bars to set up patios on sidewalks and curbside lanes, are essential in bringing foot traffic to small businesses across the city. But to avoid transit-system collapse and congestion once the city fully re-opens, more steps need to be taken, Keesmaat argues.

She’d like to see a stark increase in construction of affordable housing, as well as the creation of free, high-speed internet so that disadvantaged groups can benefit from things like remote work, communicating with loved ones, and even the welcome diversion of streaming movies. While Toronto Mayor John Tory has expressed “anxious” desire to fast-track the development of modular housing on city-owned sites, Toronto’s ambitious Housing Now plan is already facing delays ranging from six months to two years.

The pandemic has shown how quickly we can mobilize in the name of public good. “We need to bring that ethos of speed and innovation with us into the future,” says Keesmaat. “When the pandemic is over, other calamities like climate change will demand agility.”

 

Finding immediate transit remedies

“Public transportation is the backbone of great cities, large and small,” says Remi Desa, co-founder and CEO of Pantonium, an on-demand service (think Uber for bus riders) that helps fleets increase patronage and reduce costs. “We need to focus on how it can better our situation.” Considering the vast majority of workers can’t work from home or afford a car (many of whom the COVID-19 crisis has deemed essential), Desa suggests that it’s time we fully embrace the unassailable benefits of good public transit: reduced GHG emissions, traffic relief, and fair mobility for every demographic.

Toronto can look to existing approaches when tackling its transit woes — particularly initiatives that don’t require left-right debates or immense withdrawals from the public purse, such as Pantonium’s project in Belleville. After the startup deployed its intelligent routing system in 2018 on one of the town’s little-used routes, ridership tripled with an on-time record of 94 percent. The program is now a permanent part of operations, and other jurisdictions like Regina and Saskatoon have signed on.

This kind of solution isn’t designed for big-city arteries like the TTC’s subway lines. But by increasing efficiency, offering alternative routes and maximizing existing buses, it has strong potential to relieve those same arteries while simultaneously bringing transit to the underserved.

Transit relief is coming to Toronto, though, by the time it’s operational, it might not be enough to address commuter demand. In October, City Council approved a $28.5-billion fleet of high-tech subways and LRTs, the largest transit investment in Canadian history. Optimists suggest the network can be built in a decade. Pessimists point to past examples of construction delays and cost overruns, and talk about how the GTA population is growing by about 50,000 per annum, the fastest rate in North America.

“We can get distracted by the hype and marketing of things like smart cities,” Desa says. “But there are so many inventions we can use right now. Embracing tech, for me, is not about science fiction; it’s about simple solutions.”

 

Using the right data for the right reasons

Harnessing the power of data is a well-known strategy for solving big-city problems. With good data, urban planners can design priority neighbourhoods with more green and blue spaces; transit officials can assess rider preferences to predict traffic levels and perform maintenance without hindering schedules; and city officials can identify undervalued, vacant property to be converted into respite centres. That analytical power, however, is becoming more fraught. And Sidewalk Labs’ Quayside failure exposed the dangers of rushing into data-driven projects without considering effects on the vulnerable.

“New tech, while well-intentioned, can still encourage bad outcomes and bad actors,” says Sasha Sud, director of smart cities at MaRS. Sud recalls a study revealing how supposedly anonymous New York taxi-driver information actually identified which employees were devout Muslims. That’s because the information marked times when cabbies had paused trips, which allowed data users to infer certain drivers were praying. Placed in the wrong hands without thoughtful governance, such information could be weaponized against minorities. The best technological solutions are born from the ethical faculties we imbue them with. With any innovation, speed and adoption are important, justice and fairness more so.

Leaps in data science have helped contain the spread of the coronavirus, and will prove invaluable for future public-health crises. Still, new gadgets like contact tracing apps have sparked privacy concerns. The United Kingdom, for instance, rushed to release its own without infusing safeguards like “sunset clauses,” which mandate governments delete all data once things return to normal. The use of surveillance should be time-limited, Robert Hannigan, former director of the state’s intelligence and security bureau, told The Guardian. “At the end of the pandemic, we need to pause this experiment and have a proper public debate, and parliamentary debate, about the use of these apps in the future,” he said.

Toronto officials have waded into these waters before. And having played a big role in advocating for a civic data trust to check and balance any corporate motivations during the Sidewalk Labs negotiations, Sasha Sud is confident responsible data collection can be done in Toronto. Waterfront Toronto chair Stephen Diamond conceded to The Globe and Mail that initial ambitions for Quayside were vague, and that the neighbourhood’s rightful objectives should tackle Toronto’s most dire needs: affordable housing, elder care, and boosting the economy by resurrecting the small-retail market. “We’re going to build a smarter city, not necessarily a smart city,” Diamond said.

Minute as this shift may be, it’s a significant example of Torontonians demanding that new technologies should advance citizen welfare. It took two-and-half years of lobbying and uncomfortable conversation (and a pandemic), but Quayside finally has its eyes set on the public interest. Now it’s time to extend similar focus to all corners of the city.

 

Building a city of the future, for the future

Walking past Quayside today, it’s easy to be discouraged by the state of Toronto’s public spaces. How can a city defeat a deadly virus if it can’t pour a sidewalk wide-enough for a couple holding hands? The answer may, in fact, be found by walking — taking in the city’s built form, and reflecting on how and why it came to be.

The flâneur (essentially an urban wanderer) came to prominence in 19th-century Paris as an act of bourgeois leisure, though, philosophers like the University of Toronto’s Mark Kingwell have argued that flâneurie is a classless privilege unique to city life, and a dream-state by which we may conjure revelations of an ideal polity. “The flâneur’s utopianism is one of lack,” Kingwell writes, “an always not-yet that keeps them pressing for the next corner, the next stolen glimpse.” For him, urban walking allows us to clear our minds and think critically about our town’s virtues and vices, to empathize with neighbours, and reacquaint ourselves with rational solutions, like converting curbside lanes into venues for commuting, socializing and supporting your local Mom and Pop shop.

Walking past Quayside and up the Don Valley, for example, provides a glimpse at one of Toronto’s most inspirational public works. It’s the Bloor Street Viaduct, standing like a sentry over the downtown’s northern fringe. Completed in 1918, this structure quite literally bridged Toronto’s east and west ends. Stepping onto the overpass, you’ll likely feel a rumble below. It’s the subway train. And that’s really what’s most remarkable about the viaduct: nearly 50 years before the Bloor-Danforth line opened, Toronto’s civic leaders had the good sense to incorporate a subway deck into the design. The move came at great cost, and none of them lived long enough to see the trains in action. But they had people in mind; they knew that future generations would benefit from their foresight, and that such a piece of infrastructure would help propel Toronto to new strata of excellence.

Innovative thinking, for sure.

Every day, Canadian startups are working to bring the coronavirus emergency to a decisive end. Learn more about the MaRS COVID-19 Coalition.