Road to post-pandemic recovery starts on the sidewalk

In each crisis comes opportunity; in COVID-19, several.

One is street life.

Without unduly strangling the car, without needlessly diverting the truck, without unquestioningly conceding to the bicycle, there is a middle and achievable path – a road, if you will, to a reshaping of the city for what we know will be a long stretch of adaptation and navigation around the coronavirus.

We can start with the sidewalk. It needs our particular attention today.

Too many are too narrow, more so now in social distancing. They are forcing people to the curb and to the edge of a building, into a bush or out in traffic, in order to keep that vaunted two metres apart.

Runners might as well take entirely to the road. In my experience, people are wincing and turning away when I run toward them (and no, it’s not just me) because runners are, well, exuding. We are being told to put about five metres between us and others, and you can’t do that on the sidewalk or on a narrow path.

We have to find ways to broaden the busiest walkways before anything else.

But it isn’t just about pandemic health.

It also isn’t just about economic health, either, but we can turn some attention there without any revolutionary thinking.

The contemplation of cities like Vancouver about extending restaurants and some retailers into the streets to give them a fighting chance of generating a business amid social distancing is a no-brainer. Should have been approved weeks, months, years ago. They serve as staples of a neighbourhood’s identity, and in this crisis, they are a threatened breed that the species cannot afford to lose.

No, while physical and economic health matter mightily, this is ultimately more about our mental health, about the development of a new appreciation of outdoors that isn’t all about hurrying from point A to point B, about the in-between spaces of the buildings we might have thought differently about had we known we would face such uncertain times, and about making our cities more accessible, integrated and equitable.

This would be an opportunity to look at how those districts adjacent to our downtown and other busy avenues can be nurtured into more animated areas. Certainly, our years-long effort to develop a city plan in Vancouver now needs this detour into how we encourage and accommodate the prolonged presence of pedestrians.

We don’t seem willing politically to extend free public transit so we can during and after the worst of the pandemic develop a different relationship to our cities. But there is no reason why we cannot make this a summer of staycations with a vastly more vibrant street scene – albeit with space to keep us safe.

There aren’t enough cars on enough roads during the day to merit as many streets laying idle. There are opportunities here for our artists, our merchants and our business improvement associations to cordon off walking-distance, social-distance promenades galore. We could see how permanent they’d be by how they’re used – and, naturally, how their presence is a reasonable covenant with commerce.

Not every outdoor experience requires a beach or a park – although, truthfully, our parks could use their own makeover. They are profoundly underused community resources during the better weather, largely because of a lack of funds, largely because of a city that doesn’t place them in any priority.

These ideas are not the stuff of five-year plans. My hunch is that there exists today the talent and drive in our neighbourhoods to launch into a large wave of these before our virtual Canada Day. This assumes, of course, that it doesn’t turn first into a path to permits.

It is a lot of fun to indulge technology to keep us engaged in the crisis. I have wondered many times what we might have done in these circumstances had we not been able to go online. I suspect we would have resorted to community as a natural instinct.

Among much else, this new street life would extricate us from our confinement in online spaces to discover the wonder of what surrounds us. It would be a bit of back to the future.

Nothing beats community life to build supportive relationships in times of stress, but we have largely surrendered that role to the internet. We have to take it back.

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.