As the COVID-19 pandemic transforms the way we move in cities, urban planners and decision-makers have had to act quickly and boldly. Our neighbourhoods are rapidly being rethought and redesigned in a matter of weeks to create temporary infrastructure for residents to connect and travel safely.
Over the summer, the City of Vancouver installed pop-up plazas and temporary patios to create safe public spaces to gather, widened sidewalks to make more room for getting around, and slowed traffic on certain streets to make walking and cycling more comfortable. Itching to get out of the house while respecting physical distancing protocols, Vancouverites flocked to these spaces. At the end of August, the city was surveying its residents on their views and uses of these interventions, with an eye to consider whether these installations should become permanent.
Part of Montreal’s pandemic response involved creating active and secure ways (voies actives et sécuritaires), 6-m wide unidirectional protected bike lanes on either side of a handful of major roads to better connect parts of the city through active transportation. According to bike counter data, cyclist traffic along the widened corridors is up by 36% on average. On one sunny Saturday in September, cyclists rode masked and en masse along one of these VAS as part of Pédalons pour Christophe-Colomb, an event advocating to make the lanes permanent.
In these exceptional times, city governments implemented temporary built environment interventions to respond to the health crisis and found a generally supportive public. Still, detractors have been vocal about the loss of parking and slowed car traffic. The City of Montreal has had to delay implementation of other bike corridors due to the backlash from business owners, who are weary of the impact of more construction (disruptions to foot traffic, storefront visibility, and parking) during a time when businesses have already been heavily affected by the pandemic.
These unusual circumstances have made us reconsider what components need to be in place and who needs to be ‘at the table’ in order for these roadway adaptions to be successful and, possibly, made permanent.
Over the past four years, our team has set out to better understand the context in which built environment interventions were happening in our INTERACT cities. Our recent publication in Social Science & Medicine led by INTERACT post-doc Caislin Firth pulled together stakeholder perspectives on what really matters for the success and failure of built environment interventions across four Canadian cities. We gathered perspectives from elected officials, municipal workers, advocacy organizations, and businesses who were invested in a new bicycle network in Victoria, introduction of Mobi — a bike sharing program in Vancouver, preparing for Bus Rapid Transit lines in Saskatoon, and achieving Montreal’s sustainable development goals. We synthesized their views by using concept mapping, a mixed-methods tool that uses statistical modelling to group similar concepts together within each city.
Changes to cities were already visible when we sought input from those invested in the programs. Bike lane construction had begun on Pandora Ave in Victoria and public bike share stations were set up in Vancouver ahead of their summer 2016 launch. Voices raised some key concerns: Was the design of the bike network safe for people of all ages? How easy would it be to use the bike share program in Vancouver, will it come with bicycle helmets, and could it be integrated into the existing Metro system? How will we ensure people of Saskatoon use the new Rapid Bus lines throughout winter? Will all bus shelters have warming stations? Such questions underscored real concerns from different perspectives that needed to be addressed before programs launched in order to ensure their success.
Stakeholders (the perspectives included in our work) highlighted considerations of equity to be essential for program success. This meant that programs needed to be designed so they could be used and benefitted by all. In Vancouver and Saskatoon, that meant considering whether the bike share or bus might cost too much for some priority populations. Bike sharing stations in Vancouver would have to be placed in areas that reach all corners of the cities to increase mobility options and connectivity with downtown.
Historically, the impacts of new built environment programs on health and well-being have mainly been documented in more affluent areas or for higher income populations. This does not reflect the diversity of Canadian cities and neighbourhoods. In order to design healthy cities for all, equity needs to be at the forefront of decision making.
We can see parallels between perspectives put forth by stakeholders over the past four years and the situation we find ourselves in today. Are street reallocations programs designed to support physical distancing and reduce COVID-19 transmission done in a way that is safe and sustainable? Will citizens continue to use these spaces in years to come? And were these interventions implemented in areas that need outdoor space the most? Who was not included in the rapid urban planning process?
To read more on the methods and our results, visit the full paper available online.
Planning for collaboration
Since stakeholder ‘buy in’ plays a critical role in the success of built environment interventions, how can cities cultivate collaboration in an emergency response context? Who is represented at the decision-making table? How can we foster resilience to better anticipate and address emergencies?
Our team is keen on pushing these questions further this year, and in our future research agenda. Ultimately, INTERACT is hoping to provide needed evidence to decision-makers and planners as they prepare for the coming months and years ahead, adapting to the next shocks and rebuilding healthier and more equitable cities.
Join us! We are currently collecting data on health and habits of citizens in Montreal, Vancouver and Saskatoon. To share your perspectives, sign up at: www.teaminteract.ca/cities
Caislin Firth is a social epidemiologist and postdoctoral fellow at Simon Fraser University whose research focuses on understanding how social policies change our environments and drive health inequities.
Zoé Poirier Stephens is INTERACT’s National Research Coordinator. Her work centres around empowering local partners with evidence to support action for healthy and equitable cities.