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Customers have lunch on the patio at Mezes on the Danforth in Toronto on June 11, 2021.Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

As cities scrambled to fight multiple crises during the early months of COVID-19, the growing mantra for a postpandemic future became “build back better.”

Instead of just getting through the pandemic and returning to normal, many people said this should be a turning point for creating more livable cities. Heeding the call, mayors worldwide moved boldly to reshape their communities.

In Canada, road-safety advocates pointed to the lack of traffic and said this was an obvious moment to expand cycling and walking routes. Businesses called for unused parking spots to be turned into patios. And advocates for parks, noting that these urban green spaces were the de facto backyards for millions of Canadians, called for new rules around how they could be used.

While some of this happened, lofty ideas were slow to turn to reality. The experience here has been more halting – and less permanent – than in some countries.

In a number of cities, pandemic-related measures were explicitly temporary, a way to survive COVID instead of an attempt to change the status quo. In others, even popular ideas were allowed to wither and die in the face of complaints from those residents who don’t value them.

To critics, the build-back-better slogan is looking increasingly empty.

Federation of Canadian Municipalities president Taneen Rudyk doesn’t buy the criticism. She notes that cities in some other countries have more funding available and she argues that municipal leaders, being the level of government closest to voters, were able to react creatively and nimbly to their needs.

COVID was a sort of forced experiment for cities, and possibilities for change abounded in the first year of the pandemic.

Paris created more than 100 “school streets,” with no traffic and plenty of greenery. Bogota expanded its popular “Ciclovia” program, opening wide swaths of road to people on foot and bike. Tallinn turned much of its downtown into open-air restaurant and bar seating.

In Canada, though, few city residents can see evidence of radical change where they live.

Brent Toderian, urban consultant and former director of planning for Vancouver, won’t characterize the past few years as a missed opportunity – arguing such framing is crass given the toll COVID has taken – but says that leaders had a responsibility to act more decisively.

“Canadian cities were very slow and pretty timid,” he said. “The good news is there’s still time. … There’s still time to make different decisions.”

Open streets

In common with a number of cities, Winnipeg sought early in the pandemic to create spaces where residents could be outside at a safe distance. Unlike many, the city had a template it could easily build on.

For years, Winnipeg had discouraged through traffic each summer on a handful of streets, creating places to walk and cycle. The first COVID summer, the program was quickly expanded, creating a series of linear parks. But it couldn’t be made permanent, because the program had always been illegal: Under Manitoba law, people can’t walk on the roadway of a street that has a sidewalk.

The province showed no inclination to change the law, so Winnipeg has rebranded the program as enhanced cycling corridors. Although people are still prohibited from walking on them, architect and urbanist Brent Bellamy says that pedestrians spill off the sidewalks anyway.

The speed limit on Wellington Crescent in Winnipeg was lowered to 30 km/hour as part of the city’s 2022 Enhanced Summer Bike Route.Shannon VanRaes/The Globe and Mail

“There’s this impromptu taking back the streets, because there is so much less traffic and it is more open,” he said, calling it a policy evolution that had landed in a good spot.

Such programs were implemented across the country. They have a mixed track record.

In Vancouver, there remain 40 kilometres of “slow streets,” where drivers are encouraged to ease off the gas pedal. But in Stanley Park, the bold move of shutting the roads to motor-vehicle traffic didn’t make it more than a few months. The main route around the park is now split between cars and bicycles. In Calgary, the “adaptive roadway” program has been whittled down to only four spots, from a peak of nine last year.

Toronto’s open streets program – dubbed ActiveTO – ran into headwinds from drivers, particularly its use of part of the major west-side arterial Lake Shore Boulevard. Critics said that it slowed motorists too much while advocates pointed to its substantial popularity, noting that many more people were walking and cycling on the repurposed road than would otherwise be driving on it.

Council backed a city-staff proposal to turn ActiveTO’s use of Lake Shore into an intermittent thing, more occasional street festival than regular physical and social outlet. But the city insisted that ActiveTO wasn’t dead, pointing to restricted auto access on a few kilometres of an east-side road and a multiuse trail in a Scarborough hydro corridor that has always been closed to cars.

Urban parks

For Canadians, particularly those without private outdoor space, the local park became a crucial support for physical and mental health. People flocked to urban green space in such numbers that they stretched maintenance budgets and shone a light on parks policies critics said were out of date.

The official prohibition on drinking in many parks was one issue. It was flagged as an inequity because condo and apartment dwellers often don’t have a backyard in which to enjoy an outdoor beverage – for them, the park is their backyard.

In the face of criticism, a few cities, including Vancouver and Calgary, allowed limited alcohol consumption in parks. Winnipeg went partway there by approving beer gardens – including a popular one in Assiniboine Park – that sold alcohol but were much larger than a traditional patio and not associated with a specific bar. So far, these measures are popular and do not seem under immediate threat.

People sit and lie in the sun at Kitsilano Beach Park in Vancouver on May 9, 2020.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

However, in Toronto, council rejected in both 2021 and 2022 one councillor’s push to test the waters by allowing alcohol in parks under specific rules. Instead, Mayor John Tory secured council support for more study of the issue, with recommendations around a possible rule change to come next year.

The added crowds also made clear there were insufficient numbers of public toilets in many parks. People who might once have ducked into a nearby fast-food restaurant were confronted with long lineups and often-locked public facilities.

A number of cities responded by installing porta-potties. In some cases, libraries near parks handled spillover crowds. Such temporary solutions appear likely to continue. But any broader push toward replacing permanent public toilets that disappeared during the 20th century remains mired in familiar concerns about their possible use by drug-takers or as shelter for homeless people.

Amid conflicts over how parks should be used – and by whom – Dave Harvey, founder and executive director of the charity Park People, is gratified that the pandemic proved to anyone who might still have doubted it that these green spaces were key urban infrastructure. They’re not just a nice-to-have.

And while he worries that municipal budgets might not be up to the new pressures, he was pleased that there was new willingness to fund the creation of urban parks.

“To have the federal government coming out of COVID saying that we are going to be involved in urban parks again, that’s a great development,” Mr. Harvey said. “Hopefully that’s a net benefit coming out of COVID.”

Patios

With the country now in its third pandemic summer, the most visible urban change is probably the proliferation of pop-up roadside patios that sprouted in dozens of cities across the country.

The use of road space for patios is an approach rarely seen in Canada before the pandemic. Hamilton was one of the first in the country, allowing temporary patios in parking spaces and off-street lots. The city made the program permanent early this year.

Last year, Vancouver expanded its COVID patio program to include on-street locations. And in Toronto, where nearly 1,000 such installations lined curb lanes last summer – stretching 12 linear kilometres – the city will this year reimburse part of the cost of building the patio infrastructure.

People dine out for lunch at Melissa's on the main street of Banff, Alta., on June 5, 2021.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

In Calgary, the city issued 165 temporary patio permits in 2020, and 219 last year. This year, without indoor capacity limits, applications have dipped. The rules have also changed: Instead of putting the pop-up patio on the sidewalk and forcing pedestrians to go around, the patio will be installed curbside and the sidewalk left for those on foot.

One reason for the popularity of such patios is that, even in expensive cities, on-street parking tends to be priced fairly low. As a result, using the space instead as patios can generate far more economic activity.

A 2021 study by Toronto Business Improvement Areas estimated that diners on curb-lane patios spent $181-million during 13 weeks of summer that year. If used as parking, assuming prepandemic demand, those spots would have generated $3.7-million in revenue, according to the local parking authority.

Such figures are compelling, particularly to restaurant owners who have struggled through the past two years. But this argument can also generate the impression that Canadian cities are willing to change only if it makes someone money.

“Which almost illustrates the fact we care more about business than we care about people,” said Mr. Toderian, the consultant and former planner.

“But we should be willing to rethink street space and the amount of space we surrender to the car for the benefit of people, shouldn’t we?”

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