How the pandemic could reshape Edmonton's urban landscape

Encouraging greater density in the city doesn’t mean overcrowding—and could lead to better public health, argue urban planning experts.


Edmonton's adoption of shared-use streets as COVID-19 restrictions eased and the weather warmed up could offer a glimpse of the city's future, say U of A urban planning researchers. (Photo: City of Edmonton via Twitter)

Pandemics, infectious diseases and urban planning have a long and intertwined history. Multiple episodes of the Black Death in the 14th century brought parks and open spaces to European cities. Cholera outbreaks in the 19th century led to some of the first sanitation plans and formalized the very concept of urban planning. The City of New York pioneered zoning regulations in the early 20th century partly in response to deteriorating public health conditions, which saved more lives than the first use of penicillin in the early 1940s, according to some epidemiologists.

Now, as we are living through a global pandemic, cities across the world including Edmonton are exploring ways to accommodate the new normal of social distancing as well as engaging in deeper conversations about the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on intersections of density, mobility alternatives, municipal finances and, above all, public health.

Urban density has been at the centre of this debate. How will cities advocate for density when faced with concerns that it makes them vulnerable to the spread of infectious diseases?

Referring to New York City, Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York state, recently tweeted, "There is a density level in NYC that is destructive." While COVID-19 has made us wary of physical proximity, both planning practitioners and scholars have pointed out that it is not density that is the enemy, rather overcrowding.

In fact, density may even be responsible for lower death rates in certain areas as people have easy and better access to medical care and everyday necessities. Vancouver, with almost five times the density of Edmonton, has recorded only slightly more cases of COVID-19.

In Edmonton, as the weather warmed up and people stepped out to break the monotony of self-isolation, the city was quick to accommodate the increased volume of pedestrian and bicycle traffic. Parts of Victoria Promenade and Saskatchewan Drive were converted into shared-use space for pedestrians and cyclists.

Shared-use space was also created in neighbourhood streets in Garneau and Oliver, and car speeds were further reduced to ensure the safety of pedestrians. While these measures may be reactive, they are an excellent opportunity for planners, mobility advocates and citizens to observe real-time pilots of shared streets.

COVID-19 did have adverse effects on the city as well. A major casualty was the public transport system, which recorded a fast decline in ridership as well as frequency. The city reports that it is losing $10 million a month because of this and at one point considered shutting down public transport in summer.

Public transport's loss may just be car ridership's gain. Cues can be drawn from the Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic, where private car sales shot up as lockdown measures eased in April. A large part of this is attributed to people feeling safer in private cars than in shared public transportation during a pandemic.

As Edmonton begins to emerge from the lockdown, it is a good time to reflect upon how certain reactionary planning measures might shape its future. First is to look out for spending choices that the city could make with any COVID-19 stimulus package it might receive.

Cities have begun talking of "integrated recovery" where stimulus money is being invested in infrastructure to help achieve long-term visions of carbon neutrality. Paris, for example, is investing in 650 kilometres of bicycle infrastructure to encourage cycling and keep air pollution under control.

Similarly, in the U.K., cities like London and Manchester are considering investing in retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency. Edmonton, too, could use this opportunity to realize its long-term visions of transitioning to renewable energy and achieving climate resilience. A green recovery promises not only a much-needed economic stimulus, but also a chance to combat climate change, which poses an existential crisis far greater than COVID-19.

Second, Edmonton's newly developed-although not yet formally approved-City Plan is scheduled for public discussion in September. The City Plan proactively presents a vision of a compact, higher-density development urban form where half of daily trips are made using mass transit or other active modes of transportation, such as walking or biking. It will be a pivotal moment for residents to bring forth their lived experience of COVID-19 to public hearings on the City Plan and participate in shaping the trajectory of their city.

Finally, COVID-19 provides an opportunity to strengthen the city's relationship with the public health unit of Alberta Health Services. Although quantitative measures of density have a place, how to turn density into good design, and how it relates to public hygiene and health, are more important in future debates and planning practice.

While the pandemic will not last forever, its legacy for the city might be much more enduring.

Sandeep Agrawal is a professor and director, Neelakshi Joshi is a post-doctoral fellow in, and Andrew Lowerre is a recent graduate of the School of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Alberta.

This opinion-editorial originally appeared June 28 in the Edmonton Journal.